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What kind of movie is Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited? Is it an unbearably twee caprice, the latest vehicle for Mr Anderson and his acting troupe? (Abbott and Costello Ride the Bengal Lancers?) Or is it a blasting excoriation of American navel-gazing? I suspect that it’s both, which means that you have got to be in the mood for this picture – in the mood to see Owen Wilson flayed alive for all the sybaritic lies that his character told in The Wedding Crashers. In the mood for Adrien Brody’s dignified but defiant anguish. In the mood for Jason Schwartzman’s great big eyes, and for his sweet patience with the fact that the co-stars playing his brothers are so much taller.* In the mood, perhaps, to excuse Anjelica Huston for dragging David Strathairn.
What I was not in the the mood for was Mr Anderson’s India. As it happens, I’ve been reading a lot about India lately, and, guess what: India is a vast and varied country, full of deserts, jungles, plains, and mountains. There is really no characteristic landscape, except perhaps in the towns. Darjeeling, just in case you’re interested, is a famous hill station, tucked in between Nepal and Bhutan, with an elevation greater than a mile. There is no sign of this city in Mr Anderson’s movie, perhaps because the leading characters are thrown off the eponymous train before it makes its first hairpin turn. The landscape on offer is uniformly dreary, with rocks and scrub and dirt and trees in the distance. It is as uniform as the Malibu canyons that used to provide Hollywood with cheaply accessible “Western” locations. Mr Anderson’s Indians are just as generic. They either mumble some local dialect that is impenetrable to the three Whitman brothers – Francis (Mr Wilson), Peter (Mr Brody), and Jack (Mr Schwartzman) – who have embarked on an ultimately inexplicable spiritual journey (and how heartwarming it is that they always seem to understand the international sign-language of Deep Feelings – or they chatter on in a Stanbridge accent that suggests childhood in New Jersey followed by a Rhodes scholarship. It must be said that they are not cliché Indians – thank heaven for that. They are, like everything else in The Darjeeling Limited, Mr Anderson’s own. But nowhere does the writer-director have the fun that Albett Brooks had in Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World, where playing with and against stereotypes (including Mr Brooks’s Hollywood Jewishness) keeps the story popping. The “Prague” of Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog is more open to fresh air than the flatland of Darjeeling’s Subcontinent.
Which may be the point. Perhaps only an idiot like me would go to see The Darjeeling Limited because it is (nominally) set in India. What we have here - this =much is clear - is a sentimental journey in which three brothers try to reconnect in an occasionally challenging and uncomfortable environment. Why the brothers are estranged is never made very clear, although Patrick’s overweening bossiness suggests a handful of explanations. The boys have lost their father – he was struck by a taxi in the West Seventies – about a year ago, and not seen one another since the funeral. Aside from Peter’s news that his wife is going to have a baby in six weeks, we have no idea what the brothers have been up to, or where. One of the great jokes of Mr Anderson’s The Royal Tennenbaums was his relentless subversion of New York’s layout; his scenes took place in impossible places.
Here, that playfulness has given way to indifference. Jack may or may not have been in “Italy,” a country that, while much smaller than India, is equally diverse and resistant to generic characterization (which explains the universal iconology of the campanile at Pisa). The boys have also been abandoned by their mother, Patricia (Anjelica Huston) – although, frankly, they seem to be of an age at which to speak of maternal abandonment is to suggest a psychiatrist’s office on the Upper West Side, and thirty years ago at that, in scenes from early Neil Simon. But then, the brothers are even more stereotypical than the India in which they find themselves. This is where judging the film becomes problematic. Mr Anderson has taken a sort of dramatic make-up kit and done exactly what a professional cosmetician wouldn’t do: highlighting every unflattering angle. The stereotypes are unrelieved by interesting personal tics, because the tics are the characters. Once you see the Whitman brothers as intentionally unflattering creations, The Darjeeling Limited becomes one of the most squirmy anti-American films since the Seventies.
Notice how often Patrick asks his brothers to make yet “another agreement,” when in fact he’s handing out playsheets. “Let’s trust one another,” is one proposition, and although Peter and Jack agree without demur, they backslide constantly, not because they’re malicious sociopaths but because one of the surest ways to gain affection in the United States is to tell a secret. Ideally, it ought to be your own secret, but someone else’s will serve just as well. Not only do the young men betray their brothers’ secrets; they invariably add that “he told me not to tell you.” As if it were the confiding brother’s fault! As indeed it is: for why should trusting brothers tell their secrets to one but not all? The Whitmans live in a sink of dirty moral dishwater, and the only thing keeping them afloat is the mourning that they nurse for their father (whom we never get to know at all, much less see) and the resentful longing for their mother’s love.
Having refused to attend her (ex-?) husband’s funeral and to reply to Patrick’s many messages, Patricia finally lets the boys know, as they’re drifting in her general direction on the leisurely Indian trains, that it would be much better if they visited her “in the springtime,” which, given the film's vagueness about details of time and place, simply means, “a long time from now.” That’s the first thing that she says when she marches out of her nunnery, acolytes in tow. “I told you to come in the springtime!” That she warmly embraces her sons immediately thereafter only makes her behavior more intensely narcissistic. Ms Huston has pulled off the neat trick of giving us a film character so totally self-absorbed that she cannot be bothered to eat scenery or hypnotize the camera. In fact, she looks pretty awful, with a shock of gunboat hair atop a childishly ageing face. Her outfit is peculiar: it looks like the sort of thing that Nehru used to wear, combining skirt and trousers. Only on her it looks like a bad dream of beach pyjamas from Miami. What happens at this touching reunion? Absolutely nothing. Patricia is so adamantly locked up within herself that you can’t argue that in some odd way she has “freed” her boys from their “dependence” on her. Patrick continues to look bewildered, Peter cynical and wounded, and Jack – well, let’s just say that Jack is the only brother who “gets any action” in the movie. His secret seems to be shutting up and keeping his head down. It seems to work for him.
One of Mr Anderson’s “little jokes” is having characters run in slow-motion to try to catch trains that are pulling out of the station. Bill Murray has a cameo at the start, playing a “businessman” who can’t make it, while Peter jets past him, Vuitton luggage and all. At the end of the picture, all three brothers have to race to catch their train, in slow motion of course, only, this time, they ditch the bags. The heavy suitcases sail from their hands and shoulders like big brown marshmallows. Look, ma, they’re getting rid of their “baggage.” But never has the cliché been so intentionally, deeply considered. Is this your kind of movie? (October 2007)
*Not that they are particularly tall. As Wedding Crashers made drolly clear, Mr Wilson is not particularly tall. Vince Vaughn is tall.
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press