By Matt Singer
[Photo: “The Darjeeling Limited,” Fox Searchlight, 2007]
Is Wes Anderson’s schtick getting tired, or am I simply getting tired of Wes Anderson’s schtick? This is what I know: I was as big a fan of Anderson’s after “Rushmore” as has existed on this earth. But his each of his succeeding films from “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” and now “The Darjeeling Limited” has touched me less than the one before it. I can remember the rush of shock that met me when I saw “Rushmore” for the first time there was a movie brimming with cinematic invention. It felt new and special and unique. I think the most frustrating thing about Anderson’s new movie is that that sense of surprise his films used to provide is completely gone. At this point, we all know what a “Wes Anderson movie” is going to be. His work was once a break from convention; now he’s practically a genre unto himself.
There is a distinction to be made between a director exploring a personal theme over and over and a director making the same movie over and over. Hitchcock was obsessed with icy blondes and mistaken identities but he examined those ideas in movies as radically different as “North by Northwest” and “Marnie.” Unfortunately, I find it increasingly difficult to tell one Anderson movie from the next which, in turn, feeds that feeling that there is nothing in “The Darjeeling Limited” that I haven’t seen before, from the aggressively immature brothers Francis, Peter and Jack (played by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman) and their perpetually dour demeanors to the British Invasion soundtrack and dreamy slow-motion cinematography.
The brothers board the titular train as part of an attempt to reconnect after the death of their father and the disastrous funeral that their mother (Anjelica Huston) did not attend. All the brothers have problems: Francis is badly beaten after an automobile accident (which, as tabloids circling Wilson’s personal problems have already noted, is likely self-induced); Jack is reeling from another busted relationship with a woman; Peter’s too busy dealing with his father issues to get a grip on the fact that he’s about to become one himself. The train ride and several extensive detours into the Indian countryside are transformative, of course, though not in the ways the brothers initially intended.
The one member of the creative team who does impress is Schwartzman, who collaborated with Anderson and Roman Coppola on the screenplay, and who gives the finest and most complex performance in the company. After he followed the runaway success of “Rushmore” with his, shall we say, less than impressive turns in films like “Slackers,” one might have been tempted to write Schwartzman off as a footnote on the indie film landscape of the late-1990s. But he made a strong impression in Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” and here exudes a surprising amount of charisma (aided, no doubt, by one of the finest cinematic moustaches in ages). With time, he could become the least likely but most beloved leading man of the day, a, Elliott Gould for the ’00s.
Anderson’s direction is confident, maybe a little too confident. There’s no sense of daring or risk, just calm complacency. Back in college, I once got into an argument with a roommate over a rock band whose just-released new album was radically different than the previous one we’d spent all year listening to. He argued that the new record stunk because it was nothing like the last one; I said who cares about that, it’s still a great CD with tons of great tracks which it was and you have to admire artists who constantly push themselves and try new things. We could have been talking about Anderson. If you want to see him repeat the same movie he’s made for going on a decade now the same sorta-jokes, the same old music, the same stock shots you’ll probably enjoy “The Darjeeling Limited.” But if you’re a fan like me, and you believe him capable of much bigger, more dynamic things, you may find yourself wondering when Wes Anderson will get around to making something that isn’t just another “Wes Anderson movie.”
See Alison Willmore’s review of the film from last week here.
“The Darjeeling Limited” is now in theaters (official site).