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I’m a frustrating (to those with stronger beliefs anyway) middle-grounder in the Wes Anderson is brilliant/overrated/or just over debate. Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, both now over a decade old, should be filed away in the canon under Comedies, Great. Both are lean, strong, frequently hilarious tales of that terrified pupa stage that the American male seems to enter somewhere in early (to middle to late) twenties before accepting that he IS a man, and that disappointment isn’t a valid excuse to forego all the other things, such as friendship, sex and eating, that life entails. Bottle Rocket and, especially, Rushmore are about the collapse of a frequently male dollhouse, and the period of mourning that has a habit of setting in after that collapse.
The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic are impeccably crafted pictures that anyone would be proud to have been a part of, but they are more problematic, and redundant of Anderson’s first two films. The art for art’s sake hyper-staged decor fits Rushmore, that was Max’s refuge, but it seems to be present in Tenenbaums and Life Aquatic so they can be said to look neat. While The Life Aquatic remains a step in the right direction from the self-conscious, please love me desperation of The Royal Tenenbaums, its refusal to break free from Anderson’s frequently more anal-retentive form is actually more irritating than Tenenbaums, if only because the subject matter more readily begs for a bracing break from form: Bill Murray as a wayward sea adventurer! Hell…oh.
And so now we have The Darjeeling Limited, which sounded, on paper and in the trailers, like Anderson wandering further down a forest he shouldn’t have been heading for in the first place. In theory Darjeeling has everything the Anderson satirist needs to paint a damning portrait of acclaimed auteur head-up-his-own-assedness. Young, privileged, vaguely artsy protagonists with daddy issues? Check. Groovy art-directed vehicle or home that serves as principle setting for grappling with said issues? Check. Overwhelming, masturbatory attention devoted to heroes’ shoes, journals, and various other apparatus just as whatever it is they may do for a living goes virtually unmentioned? Check. Precious, faux-literary title? Check! Check!
Wrong. Wrong. The Darjeeling Limited is easily Wes Anderson’s best picture since Rushmore. The artifice that divides people so has been mercifully stripped down, but also has, more importantly, been re-contextualized: Anderson’s famed mise-en-scene again (poignantly) reflects the characters’ inability to abandon the moony, college freshman romanticism to which all real life pales by comparison. Anderson immediately sets the stakes with the short that (and always should have) immediately precedes the film, Hotel Chevalier, which follows twelve minutes in the life of Jack (Jason Schwartzman) as he waits for his on again, off again, on again love (Natalie Portman) to reappear in the plush hotel room that he has evidently been hiding out in for awhile. He cleans himself up, he turns on some music, he draws her bubble bath, and when she arrives they engage in one of the strongest, most beautiful scenes Anderson has ever staged.
Anderson’s frequently used pan, the one that very consciously clues you in to the movement of the camera as it glides from the left to right side of the room, is employed here, but it has never felt as vibrant, as necessary. That pan is time itself, and the characters, after all is done, have nothing left but to look out at the Paris that awaits them on the other side of the room. Hotel Chevalier has something that I haven’t seen in Anderson since Rushmore: authentic desperation. Desperation laced with an intoxicating love for the movies: imagine the lovers of Breathless infected with the wounded lonely boy sensibility of Harold and Maude and you have a general idea.
The Darjeeling Limited retains the shorter film’s air of longing, opening on a frantic, misleading chase to the titular train. A businessman (Bill Murray) just misses out, while Jack’s brother, Peter (Adrien Brody) slimmer, younger, less encumbered by life’s shit, manages to hop aboard at the last possible minute, accompanied, as one might expect, by coming of age slow-motion and a tune that I will probably buy after seeing the film. This opening moment is spry and engaging but it, like Hotel Chevalier, comes with an intangible aftertaste of loneliness. Perhaps Murray’s businessman wasn’t just trying to catch The Darjeeling Limited, but The Darjeeling Limited as well, only to be left behind, out of sight, out of mind, while we follow similar adventures that are only of concern to Jack, Peter, and their oldest brother, Francis (Owen Wilson). There’s no room for a never-ending cast of characters in The Darjeeling Limited; the film is, like the best moments of The Life Aquatic, spare, eccentric and unapologetically introverted.
The film is also, lest we forget, funny. Anderson has, with co-writers Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, re-found that flakey, non-sequiturious humor that powers his best moments. The dialogue here is sharp and pared down; rife with bitter double, triple and quadruple meanings. Anderson doesn’t ladle on the exposition here as he did in Tenenbaums, he trusts us to find our way. Anderson extends this trust to his three actors too, who look nothing like brothers (that would appear to be part of the joke) but nonetheless paint a convincing, mysterious portrait of three people who love and hate each other in ratios they haven’t quite figured out yet themselves.
Brody and Schwartzman are frequently impressive, even if the material falters, but Wilson’s return to form here is a happy surprise. Wilson’s Francis is, intentionally or not, undeniably reminiscent of his Dignan from Bottle Rocket. Francis has Dignan’s stubborn self-delusion in the face of defeat as well as his need to hold all the cards in a situation that may not even have cards to begin with. Wilson’s age is beginning to catch up with him, and it may free him from his too carefully cultivated surfer-Zen hipster thing. We see Francis in a series of bandages (resembling a biker mummy) from the neck up for the majority of the film, but a flashback (which is, itself, a marvel of timing and design) shows him fully de-bandaged and reveals Francis, jarringly, to look no less damaged. Francis is a plastic man of denial, and Wilson taps into that beautifully, intuitively.
What a wonderful picture The Darjeeling Limited is, it’s one of those movies that tempts one to abandon all pretense of a proper review and simply point out the scenes they like and why they like them. I found the revelation of the truth of Francis’s accident to be particularly brilliant: a key moment treated as a wounded throwaway. Or the picture’s climax: a potentially been there, done that “I finally found Mommy and the secret of life” scene re-staged as a bitter, elusive disappointment. The Darjeeling Limited is a marvel of implication, of fleeting, floating, easily missed answers and contradictions. The film is a superb physical comedy, a tour through all the Anderson ticks that ends at a place of grace and understanding. The pat answers of The Royal Tenenbaums have been washed away and replaced by a simpler, more truthful, consolation: life is always a partial, dependable disappointment, so just get on the damn train and go.