The fretful humanist
How exquisite to live in the time of Wes Anderson—to witness the young writer-director’s ascent, through five feature-length epistles of refined melancholy, toward de facto generational spokesmandom (that generation being mostly male and white and well off), and wonder how he’s managed to retain his wit and composure and élan, his golden ratio of solicitousness to remoteness. What a thrill to feel buoyed by the appreciation of him, until overwhelmed by its cliquishness, or elatedly less alone, until suddenly and sharply more so. To have discovered, in other words, the McSweeney’s of movies.
Yes, in the same way Dave Eggers wrote so cheekily of “self-aggrandizement disguised as self-flagellation” and probed it for sincere and personal art, Anderson’s mannered compulsions have become simultaneously coy and self-exposing. The Darjeeling Limited reiterates his truth-in-artifice campaign promise, that conspicuous narrative construction might actually yield enlightened transparency. What it risks is a helpless Eggersian confession of the director’s own narcissism. Earlier in his career, it was easy to identify with Anderson’s beleaguered mood; now the identification itself is beleaguering.
This story is of three American brothers who try to make up for the year’s worth of estrangement since their father’s funeral with a train trip through India. Literally, it wanders, but doesn’t really have to go anywhere. The real drama is in the articulation of emotional ambivalence.
The middle brother, Peter (Adrien Brody), is about to become a father himself, apparently against his will. The youngest, Jack (Jason Schwartzman), insists his obviously autobiographical short stories are purely fictional, eavesdrops on his ex’s answering machine and doesn’t hesitate to pick up his sleeper-car stewardess. First-born Francis (Owen Wilson), who still wears bandages from a recent, possibly intentional motorcycle accident, is the trip’s organizer. He wants the three of them “to become brothers again,” he says, “and to become enlightened.” So he hoards the others’ passports—and neglects to mention the part about reuniting with their mother (Anjelica Huston), who has abandoned the family to become a Himalayan nun. (Anderson has a thing about absent parents.)
Schwartzman, so often lost under other people’s direction, shines here, as does Wilson—even if that’s thanks in part to the affection rekindled in us by his own recent, real suicide attempt. As Anderson’s newest male muse, Brody reaffirms the filmmaker’s good taste; he’s a powerful, resourceful actor with a light touch, whose reedy presence can be poignantly comical, and just what’s needed.
It’s not so hard to believe that even the most naive and clichéd-seeming spiritual quest may be at least partially redeemed by fraternal good will. What’s harder to know is whether Anderson’s potency has been diluted or distilled. (His masterful, elliptical, 13-minute prologue to this film, Hotel Chevalier, isn’t showing in theaters, but is worth the iTunes download.) Written in India by Anderson, Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, who traveled there together, The Darjeeling Limited achieves a certain regional piquancy. It’s sad sometimes, and funny, and pays occasional homage to the films of Satyajit Ray, from whom Anderson may have learned something about silence and sincerity. Although it requires a stagey, melodramatic plot turn to do it, the film does manage, briefly, an arresting stillness.
Otherwise, against an array of vivid set pieces, invitingly photographed by cinematographer Robert Yeoman, the brothers tuck into their wounds and endure variously inspired comic misadventures. Their barriers and proprietary jealousies do break down—not thanks to the spiritual awakening or thaw in relations for which Francis hoped, but instead through a series of botched rituals and testy betrayals. They have literal baggage, too: a matching set of nearly a dozen satchels, sacks and suitcases inherited from their father. Allegorically obvious, yes, but wasn’t beautiful baggage always what Anderson was all about?
With its aura of luxe transience, its own sort of fantastical architecture, the suitcase set accords handsomely with the director’s familiar stylistic flourishes—all those snappy camera moves, the painstakingly diorama-like compositions, the stirring mod-rock-over-slo-mo soundtrack. It’s that brilliant, unrelenting self-consciousness again, apparently a stay against sentimentality, by which to swerve away from deep feeling and into an easier if highly appealing facetiousness.
Is there a future in it? Well, if Anderson in America is like Eggers and co., Anderson in India seems a lot like the Beatles in India: accidentally chauvinistic and forgivably overboard, probably more self-enchanted than creatively productive, but too open-hearted to abhor and worth watching if you care where popular culture goes. Could be nowhere, of course, one of those life journeys on which we begin as pilgrims but wind up merely as tourists.