Wes Anderson’s films have always existed in a singular world with only a tangential relationship to reality, one informed more by his taste in films and music, and the small body of actors that he likes to work with. They’ve also walked a fine line of pretentiousness and self-absorption versus quirky charm. Anderson seems increasingly happy to wrap a group of devoted fans around himself while studiously avoiding mainstream audiences, and which group you fall into depends on whether or not you get the joke.
But at least with his previous films there was a joke to get. If there’s one in The Darjeeling Limited then either I missed it completely or (my personal theory) it just wasn’t very funny. Certainly I could count the points where I laughed on one hand, and even that’s perhaps over-generous. Of course that criticism only holds up if you choose to think of it as a comedy, and often it’s hard to tell. The clincher isn’t that small handful of laughs, but the air of smug knowingness, and recurring visual and dialogue oddities, which seem to imply the build-up of jokes that just never pay off.
There’s a sense that Anderson got stung for trying to experiment in Life Aquatic, and has not only retreated back into safer territory, but made a holiday with his mates out of it. Everyone involved seems to be having fun, but almost none of it translates to the screen, so that the experience is one of watching a party you’re not invited to.
Both of these problems stem from the same source, a decision on the part of the writer-director and his troupe to improvise much of The Darjeeling Limited. Ironically, what on the surface looks like risk-taking may be exactly the reason we get stock Anderson characters in stock Anderson situations – few directors could be less well-suited to such a freewheeling approach. There’s a setup, of three brothers, Peter (Adrien Brody), Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and Francis (Owen Wilson) setting out on a journey of spirituality and self-discovery in India, which in fact is an excuse for them to run away from their respective problems, and … well, that’s pretty much it. They have some disconnected adventures, argue a lot, visit their absentee mother in a Himalayan monastery, and possibly bond or learn life lessons or something, though it’s hard to tell because they’re hardly less precious and self-obsessed by the end than they were at the start.
Of course, even a terribly off-form Wes Anderson is still one of the more interesting of modern directors, and there are a handful of moments in The Darjeeling Limited that just about justify the watching. What sticks in the memory most is a magnificent shot along the cut-away side of a train, where all of the characters (even ones who we know aren’t aboard) are shown in carriages that double as revealing vignettes. That one shot, and the short preceding film Hotel Chevalier (which is only showing in select screenings, though it’s available to download*) achieve as much and more than the entire rest of Darjeeling Limited, with a damn sight more subtlety and panache. If you’re not a raving Anderson fan then perhaps download Hotel Chevalier and take the plunge if you really dig it; and if you are a fan then no doubt you’ll accept this latest outing despite it’s many and obvious flaws.
* If you have iTunes, that is.