There is a certain kind of person who expects a new Wes Anderson movie to change his life. And if you are not part of this elite group of Anderson enthusiasts, you might really enjoy the director’s latest release, “The Darjeeling Limited.”
The film follows three brothers — Francis and Jack, played respectively by Anderson regulars Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman, and Peter, the surprisingly perfect and delicately skeletal Adrien Brody — as they travel by train across India to find themselves, spiritually, and their estranged mother, literally.
But, as those even loosely familiar with Anderson’s work will know, that’s not what the film is really about. Like a “Seinfeld” episode ostensibly about nothing but actually about everything and then some, “Darjeeling” shows the brothers going through a series of meaningless rituals across a panorama of remarkable but undifferentiated landscapes, all the while pondering issues of trust, family and prolonged adolescence.
Just like pretty much every other Wes Anderson movie.
It’s not that “The Darjeeling Limited” is bad — it’s that it’s good, and it should be, because all Anderson’s movies are good. And sometimes great. But the very expectation of excellence, this hopeful hunger for transcendence, can leave a viewer wanting more. While Anderson’s shooting budget may have grown exponentially — facilitating gorgeous shots of the jewel-toned Indian scenery — his themes are beginning to feel as familiar as Owen Wilson’s knobby nose or Jason Schwartzman’s silly walk.
But perhaps Anderson invites this comparison himself; casting the same actors, surrounding them with the same stylishly vintage/tragically cast-off settings, and employing the same cinematic techniques (slow-mo closing sequence, anyone?), Anderson’s work tends to be more cozily consistent than startlingly revelatory. Lucky for him, compared to the rest of the film industry he’s put out some of the freshest and most exciting work of the past ten years.
Hailed as a savior by many — least among them Martin Scorsese — Anderson is adored by a troop of diehard fans whose Facebook profiles read like catalogs of his work and who themselves tend to look and talk and act like characters from Anderson’s films. But while other directors may dream of a dedicated cadre of attentive viewers (and DVD collectors!), Anderson seems to actively reject this kind of desperate sobriety. Each time he uses a device typically associated with serious film, Anderson bucks gravitas, wriggling out from under his mantle as Movie Messiah with every exaggerated zoom. By filming his characters through a backlit train window framed by colorful curtains, Anderson reduces the family scuffle to the scale and aesthetic of a puppet show. And by allowing the brothers to literally cast off their father’s matching luggage set, Anderson rebuffs the amateur film enthusiasts who, by this point, have no doubt begun to annoy those around them by mumbling under their breath about heavy-handed symbolism.
Anderson obviously knows the tricks of the trade and, more importantly, knows that the disaffected, pseudo-intellectual, new bohemian, post-aristocratic youth of America won’t thrill for anything less than pitiless irony and the glowing exaltation of the lunatic fringe. But Alanis Morisette mainstreamed irony so long ago that Anderson should be commended for finding something more than rancor to give his films some bite. What has always set Anderson’s films apart from, say, “Little Miss Sunshine” is their willingness to face despair head-on, while still purporting to be comedies (ex: suicidal Proust scholars are funny, watching the blood run down Richie Tenenbaum’s wrists is not). And ultimately, it is this tragicomic frankness that renders his films more optimistic, more hopeful than anything starring Steve Carrell.
All that having been said, ultimately the film is wonderful; it is a delight to watch and never dull and almost certainly merits repeat viewings. It’s just that when you hear that Peter has a son who will likely be born while he’s wandering through India, or that Francis has a beleaguered assistant whom he mercilessly abuses, it’s hard not to shake your head and respond wearily, “They’ve got nothing on the Royal Tenenbaums.”