Wes Anderson, I love you, but you’re bringing me down. The hermetically sealed world of your films the man-children; the inexplicable melancholy; the flat, wide shots; the fetishized artifacts of adolescence and carefully chosen vintage pop soundtracks has always resonated so strongly for me. I shrugged off all accusations of tweeness, I defended “The Life Aquatic” against the most virulent of critics, I saw in that AmEx commercial promising signs of self-awareness and gentle self-mockery. But with “The Darjeeling Limited” you may have finally vanished into your own well-contemplated navel and, I’m sorry to say, lost me entirely.
“The Darjeeling Limited”‘s dysfunctional family includes the three wealthy Whitman brothers: Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman). A year ago their father was hit by a taxi and killed in New York, and the three haven’t spoken or seen each other since his funeral. A near-death experience prompts Francis to organize a sibling reunion aboard a train traveling through India, where they’ll attempt to achieve spiritual enlightenment by visiting shrines and following the advice of a guru, all things laid out on daily laminated agendas by Francis’ assistant. Francis is the controlling one, Peter the nervous one and Jack the writer/ladies’ man/runaway, but they barely conform to those identifiers mostly, they’re a squabbling three-headed, puppy-eyed monster wolfing down prescription meds and toting around a lot of figurative and literal baggage (designed by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton this may be the first film to costar a matching suitcase set). The three are all in the grip of the kind of bruise-eyed, deep-rooted malaise that so often plagues Anderson characters, on the Whitmans’ part because they’re still mourning their father and because their mother has abandoned them. It’s hard to blame her the Whitman brothers, despite the considerable charm of the actors playing them, just aren’t very likable. They’re stylized imaginings of poor little rich boys whose main burden in life is a search of meaning, a tough sell even without the petulance and the fighting over $6,000 belts. They mistreat people until they’re thrown off to fend for themselves, leading them to the inevitable moment of real-life trauma that breaks the film’s bubble of whimsy and forces the characters to find their way to an emotional epiphany, a segment that, when it arrives, feels jarringly and insultingly unearned.
Anderson’s world is shrinking, from the full run of Rushmore Academy to 111 Archer Avenue to the Belafonte to “The Darjeeling Limited”‘s titular train, which in one shot is shown to contain all of the characters of the film in their own cramped, themed compartments. The natural progression is for his next film to take place entirely in a series of intricate dioramas (which I suppose is one way you could look at the planned stop-motion “Fantastic Mr. Fox”). There’s no denying that Anderson could use a bit of fresh air and a look outward. The film is still rife with reminders of his talent: the aforementioned pan along the train; another encounter out of two separate windows as it travels in the night; an early shot in luxurious slow-mo as Adrien Brody runs past Bill Murray in a tiny role, billed simply as “The Businessman,” he seems, more poignantly, in retrospect, to be a stand-in for Whitman Sr. while the Kinks’ “This Time Tomorrow” surfaces to overwhelm the soundtrack. But these moments are adrift in a whole lot of half-hearted crap. Maybe it really is time to put the prolonged boyhood to rest there are plenty of genuinely sad things happening out there in the world to make all this unaccountable, fanciful woe seem past its due date.
“The Darjeeling Limited” opens in New York on September 29th (official site).