CINEMA: We Had To Kill Wes Anderson, To Save Him

THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007, directed by Wes Anderson, 91 minutes, U.S.)


Wes Anderson is back with yet another elegantly arch Technicolor rendering of luxurious kitsch and melancholy mopery, winsome 60’s folk-rock and immaculate, intelligently-designed preciousness. Fans of Anderson’s trademark sad-eyed whimsy can rejoice, The Darjeeling Limited doesn’t stray much from the stylistic imprint he has single-mindedly pursued since his second film, the Prep School fantasy Rushmore. The rest of us can begin to ponder how much longer we have to give event status to the claustrophobic creations of this unadventurous auteur.

Undeniably, Anderson has made some of the most visually stylish films of the last decade and films like The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou were more than just hits, they were films that audiences seemed to personally embrace. Myself, I was disappointed to see his work become more broader and more self-referential with each film, always another young man needing a father figure, always an obscure 60’s rock nugget and always a barrage of dandy personally-decorated props. One hopes to see an artist surprise or challenge themselves throughout their work but Anderson’s seems stuck, dissatisfied over the same issues film after film and growing no wiser. (This is like blaming the night for being too dark! You bastard. –The Ed.)

darjeelinglimitedposter.jpgAs Anderson nears the age of forty and as the post-9-11 world takes its ominous shape, his fixation on vague ennui and self-absorbed moodiness is steadily rendering his films as increasingly out-of-step and trivial. Films don’t have to be explicitly topical but the best exist in some specific relation with the time and place they are made, as either a reflection of or a reaction against an era. Anderson’s films more than ever feel stuck in the Clinton years of a decade ago, a time when one’s idle worries might have more abstract roots as opposed to today, when if you want to worry about something you can easily be specific.

Darjeeling Limited continues the globetrotting of The Life Aquatic to find Anderson veterans Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman with Adrien Brody as three despondent brothers, recovering from their father’s death and looking to shake up their lives by taking a long train ride through India. Schwartzman is Jack, nursing a broken heart over Natalie Portman (a backstory revealed in a downloadable iPod commercial titled Hotel Chevalier), Brody is Peter, hesitant about his upcoming marriage/impending fatherhood and Owen Wilson is Frances, recovering from a suicide attempt (somewhat eerily if you keep up with celebrity gossip). They share a sleeping compartment on the quaintest train ever filmed — a gorgeous wooden sky-blue wonder that looks as if a model train had magically turned life-size — and together they heal themselves by mingling with the darling locals and sharing their prescription painkillers.

So much of Anderson’s films get their charm from their nostalgic connection to the past, the oaken rooms of old building, the most sweet and earnest folk-rock sounds of the sixties, the stylish vintage clothes and exotic hand-crafted boxes. All of Anderson’s favorite 20th Century Western aesthetics are on display at once and this yearning for the comforts of the past leaves Darjeeling Limited little room for acknowledging, or trying to understand, modern Indian characters. The sense of privilege that film’s three leading me exude seems so casual you might thinkwes-anderson-b.jpg that it is a long overdue self-reflexive critique, but in fact none of the Indian characters function as anything more than wise and earthy dark folks whose sole purpose is to steer our wealthy white guys towards enlightenment. Through bedding their women, eating their food and mourning their dead these lost boys somehow cleanse their sins.

If Anderson were less talented I think I’d find his films less irksome. When his fans find my judgements harsh I’ll admit that there is a lot of painstaking craft in his work. Mirroring a similar shot along the cut-away sub in Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited has a breathtaking tracking shot passing among each compartment along the length of the train. The scene will literally quicken your pulse, but in the service of…what exactly? More self-conscious sulking about the hurdles of everyday life. Moping at its best is a unavoidable sport of youth and younger angst-ridden filmmakers like Andrew Bujalski are the new avatars defining the modern state of mope. Darjeeling Limited‘s tired shtick shows that it is time for Wes Anderson to get over it and find a Second Act.

NPR FOR THE WES: Wes Anderson & Jason Schwartzman On Radio Times, 10 AM Friday
BONUS: Wes Anderson Flick MP3s
bottle rocket/ the rolling stones: 2000 man
rushmore/ creation: making time
the royal tenenbaums/ elliott smith: needle in the hay
the life aquatic/ seu jorge: team zizou
the darjeeling limited/ the kinks: this time tomorrow

[Illustration by ALEX FINE/Photo and MP3s via CINECDOQUE]

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