A few weeks ago, before I saw The Darjeeling Limited, a friend of mine was bemoaning the fact that a film likeResident Evil: Extinction was getting a wide release and a huge promotion while writer-directors like Wes Anderson have to struggle with getting a film made and released. When I saw Anderson’s new film, I think I was beginning to understand why.
Wes Anderson is quite talented. When he first appeared on the scene with Bottle Rocket, he was hailed as the new wunderkind of independent cinema. He held a tight reign on that mantle with the release of Rushmore and then, with The Royal Tenenbaums, cracks started to show. By the time The Life Aquatic came out, only the true believers were still voicing loud support. For the rest of the world, however, the film didn’t work. It became a matter of the fans complaining that if one didn’t like it, one simply didn’t get it. The same, I fear, is true of this latest feature.
It feels like Anderson isn’t growing. He took a risk with Life Aquatic and when it didn’t pan out, he fell back into his comfort zone, creating ticks searching for characters and eschewing substance for style. With Darjeeling Limited, he gives us three brothers trying to get back to the way they used to be, after not having spoken to each other for a year, since their father’s funeral. Unfortunately we never really understand anything about these characters beyond a cursory gloss of explanation. These are characters defined by their foibles with no history beyond what we’re told. We cannot imagine them existing in the real world. The script, by Anderson, co-star Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, feels like the navel-gazing product of a screenwriting MFA program.
The film takes place almost entirely in India, often onboard a train called The Darjeeling Limited. When the trio of brothers is ejected from the train (for doing things which, again, seem out of character but dictated by the necessity of the script) it seems like we may, finally, get a chance to have some revelation. However, none is forth-coming. In fact, you have to wonder why the film is even set in India. Very little use is made of the country-side and, honestly, the film could have been anywhere since the basics of the plot have nothing to do with its surroundings. Which isn’t to say it’s not an attractive film, it is, but there’s no substance within the imagery. It seems like Anderson is still a struggling seventeen year-old, angrily filming his defiance and shouting to the heavens that he “doesn’t have to explain his art to us.”
This is all a shame because the performances are actually quite wonderful. Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brodyseem to really be enjoying inhabiting the skins of these characters, trying to invest in them much more than is on the page. Of the three leads, only Owen Wilson seems to be delivering his standard “Owen Wilson” performance. In minor roles, Amara Karan as a Rita, a serving girl on the train and Wallace Wolodarsky as Wilson’s long-suffering assistant Brendan are both outstanding. A short film of their adventures once the brothers leave the train would be a welcome addition. But in the end, the film just feels longer than its 91 minutes and we know as little about the characters at the end as we did at the beginning.
There is a short now running with the film, a prequel entitled “Hotel Chevalier”. This was not screened when I saw the film but I understand it adds some interesting information to the life of Schwartzman’s character.
(Originally published at FirstShowing.net)