Oct 12, 2007

On The Darjeeling Limited

Among those who care about such things, Wes Anderson is a polarizing filmmaker. Those in favor of the preeminent hipster auteur (and he is, if nothing else, exactly that, a unique if troubling author of these films – you know you are watching a film by Wes Anderson from frame one) see him as a sumptuous visual stylist (both in his films and his wardrobe) whose pictures are non-threatening postmodern exercises in genre bending, biting, ever so gently and preciously, shots, titles, music, and milieus from Orson Welles, Hal Ashby, J.D. Salinger, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Jean Renoir, Sayijit Ray and in his colossal, if not completely satisfying The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the absurdity of the American action picture, all with a twist of irony and a sprinkling of creeping sentiment.

The irony and the hope for spiritual release, or at least social reconciliation with others, often within troubled families of wealthy white over or under achievers, makes these worlds inventions of Anderson and not merely fragmented constructions. Yet, his desire to control the worlds of his making also inform them as products of a perhaps limited point of view and, especially in Zissou, leave the viewer feeling emotionally understimulated, ever while acknowledging the virtuosity of Mr. Anderson filmmaking. Often Anderson’s pictures find adjectives like quirky, offeat and whimsical attached to them by admirers and terms like overdesigned and racially insensitive (In his pastiche of the action picture in Zissou, the audience is never asked to question the demise of the Phillipino Pirates Bill Murray is gunning down. Gene Hackman calling Danny Glover “Coltrane” without a hint of reprimand on the part of the filmmaking almost brings The Royal Tenenbaums to a hault) by detractors.

All of this leads us to The Darjeeling Limited, his latest picture, opening night film at this 45th New York Film Festival, distributor Fox Searchlight’s 07’ Oscar bait (although The Savages will take a stab at Oscar gold for FOX’s indie label as well). Starring those familiar to the Anderson oeuvre (Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Angelica Huston and Bill Murray, in a two scene cameo) and those not (namely, Adrien Brody) in a road (or shall we say track) picture not far from the Bob Hope, Bing Crosby tradition. The Whitman Brothers are on a journey of self-discovery in India, riding a train named The Darjeeling Limited through the countryside, finding adventures funny and tragic. The youngest Jack (Schwartzman) is a successful writer who has recently broken up with his girlfriend, although they shared one last tryst in a French hotel room which is the subject of the feature’s campanion short, Hotel Chavalier. He also refuses to wear shoes for some mysterious, spiritually tinged reason and has the hots for one of the train stewardesses (Amara Karan). The middle brother Peter (Brody) has a wife with child – he’s not sure he wants to retain either. Oldest brother Francis (Wilson), head wrapped in bandages, immediately conjuring Mr. Wilson’s publically reported recent suicide attempt, whose desire to bond with his wayward brothers is the impetus for the trip, manages to do little other than order his younger sibling around, his inner bully untempered by the whole Indian spiritual reinvention plot. The three share a generous load of Louis Vuitton baggage (designed by Marc Jacobs no less) that provides a none to subtle metaphor about what these characters need to shed in order to move on with there lives.

So does it work? For the most part, yes. I was unable to resist the temptations of Mr. Anderson and longtime DP Robert Yeoman joie de vivre with their camera, his genuine desire to de-exoticize India, the warmth, wit and charm of his performers, not to mention his subtle tributes to two heavyweights of modernist cinema, Ray and Renoir. Mr. Anderson once again tries to have his cake and eat to, and I for one, loved the frosting.