Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

Field Maloney wrote a piece for Slate a little more than two years ago that makes it almost unnecessary for me to discuss Wes Anderson. That won't stop me, of course. But in the piece, Maloney expounds on an idea that I had long suspected myself, which is that Owen Wilson's contribution to the scripts for Anderson's first three movies -- Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums -- is what made them so good. (For the record, I wouldn't say Tenenbaums was all that good, and I would imagine that Wilson, an increasingly busy and famous film star at the time, played a lesser role in crafting that one.)

Anderson's last movie, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, was the first that Wilson didn't co-write with him, and the title alone warned that Anderson's self-indulgent whimsy might float out into deep space without Wilson to anchor it. And it did.

From the previews, I was hoping that Anderson's new project, The Darjeeling Limited, would turn things around. It doesn't. It's inevitably more coherent than Life Aquatic, but it suffers from the same Anderson flaws that are now so frequently and similarly described by critics and frustrated fans.

Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman play three brothers traveling across India by train. It's the first time they've seen each other since the funeral of their father a year before. They also haven't seen their mother in at least as long -- she skipped the funeral, and Wilson has learned that she's now in a remote monastery in India. His secret plan is to bring his brothers to the monastery for a family reunion.

From the beginning, Darjeeling features several of Anderson's favorite tics: a claustrophobic, hyper-stylized set blasting with saturated colors; a control-freak character (Wilson) who believes the world can be corralled with laminated schedules of activity and will power; matching outfits (the brothers have similar pajama sets); and terrific taste in music (this time, the Kinks are heavily featured, with "This Time Tomorrow" and "Strangers"), but an over-reliance on having characters walk or run in slow motion to that music -- it's as if Anderson saw the scene in Swingers where the guys walk in slo-mo to parody Reservoir Dogs but didn't think it was a parody, just the continuation of a great new trend. And it is a cool technique, but when so overused it only makes things cool in the way that a terminally ill kid makes things sad. It's cheap.

Despite the tics, the first half of Darjeeling does show off a few of Anderson's greatest strengths. There's plenty of wit, everything is beautifully framed, and the actors (particularly Brody) are sharp. About two-thirds of the way through, just moments after Wilson delivers an absurd, hysterically funny line, the movie takes a sudden turn for the very serious. The dramatic sequences that follow succeed on their own terms, though being asked to actually feel something in an Anderson movie of recent vintage is a bit like cutting to a PSA about Darfur right as Wile E. is closing in on the Road Runner.

It's after those somber sequences that Darjeeling goes off the rails -- pardon the pun. A tonally awkward flashback to New York City on the day of their father's funeral is followed by the brothers staying in India several scenes too long. As my initial optimism about the movie gave way to resignation, I felt the way I have reading some of Martin Amis' fiction. Amis is a brilliant observer of human nature, he's wickedly funny, and he's a hell of a stylist. I'm just not always convinced that he would know a story from a frying pan. And that's fine. He was born for the extended riff, and he does it better than just about anybody. Maybe Anderson was designed to be a...designer. Of costumes, of stage sets, of soundtracks, of dry one-liners. But if that's the case, if Wilson really was the designer of characterization and narrative architecture, the two of them should team up and start making great movies again.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice. xo c

2:07 PM  

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