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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Darjeeling Limited (review)

Quest for Ire

There is an ache to the movies of Wes Anderson, a quiet but bone-deep longing for feeling. These movies appear, in their flip quirkiness, to be about people looking for a reason to feel anything at all, but scratch their surfaces just a bit, and it turns out their problem is that they feel too much, that they’re beset by messy, chaotic, confusing emotions that they’re desperate to understand and corral and control. Which is, of course, impossible — well, the understanding may not be impossible, but the corralling and controlling almost certainly is, and it’s the attempt that results in denying them, pushing them away… in the feeling that there’s no feeling at all.
Anderson’s films — particularly his most recent before this, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Royal Tenenbaums — are sometimes “accused” of being “intellectual,” as if there were something wrong with being brainy. The irony is, though, that Anderson’s films are all about critiquing intellectualism, at least when it becomes a paralyzing force; they’re all about pushing his characters to embrace the emotional chaos before they’re driven mad by overanalyzing it. Sneer that these people and these films are “intellectual” if you will, but at least know that Anderson’s are not the most flattering portraits ever of people who actually like to think.

But that’s okay with us intellectuals, too, because there’s nothing more serious and highbrow than self-doubt. Look, up on the screen: Smart people constantly in danger of implosion! Just like me!

And so the three Whitman brothers — Francis (Owen Wilson: Night at the Museum, You, Me and Dupree), Peter (Adrien Brody: King Kong, The Jacket), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman: Marie Antoinette, Bewitched) — estranged for a year since the untimely death of their father, meet in India. Francis has brought them together, hoping to reconnect and make a “spiritual journey” that will bring them out of their grief and into a new understanding of what their family has become. (Mom’s an issue, too, though what’s happened to her and what her relationship is with her sons is a matter of some suspense, so I won’t say much more than that.) They ride a train, the Darjeeling Limited, across the sprawling nation, until the train gets lost. Which is just as spryly played a conceit as you’d expect from Anderson — who cowrote the script with Schwartzman and Roman Coppola (CQ); he plays the smartly ticklish concept as ingeniously philosophical: How can a train get lost? Jack wonders; it’s on a track. But it’s those tracks that we’re all on that trip us up and take us places we didn’t realize we were headed, and the brothers all latch onto the inadvertent wisdom of Francis’s lackey (Wallace Wolodarsky: Seeing Other People), who announces, after the accidental detour as the train crew pores over maps, that “we haven’t located us yet.”

“We haven’t located us yet.” That makes my brain giggle and my soul smart — see, “smart” is the equivalent of “pain,” sometimes — in almost exactly the same way as that line’s counterappealing opposite: Buckaroo Banzai’s “No matter where you go, there you are.” (That’s the second time I’ve invoked Buckaroo Banzai in connection to Anderson’s movies — The Life Aquatic was the first. I doubt that’s a coincidence. Anderson is maybe what Buckaroo Banzai would have been if he’d indulged a filmmaking hobby.) Peter assumes he’s going to divorce his wife eventually, even though he loves her. Francis is recovering from a suicide attempt — and oh, does that really, really break the heart in light of Wilson’s recent meltdown — that appears to have been something of a whim. Jack is hurting from a recent romantic breakup and overcompensates with an intense, furious flirtation with a stewardess on the train (Amara Karan). They’re all still hurting from the loss of both of their parents, to death and other dramas. They haven’t located themselves yet in this new reality.

Can a movie be both cartoonish and authentic at the same time? That’s what Anderson achieves, always, and it’s bittersweet and hilarious and makes you want to cry with the perfection of it, and with knowing appreciation of its grand sense of kicking itself in the ass. The big epiphany they come to by the end of the film is that they need to stop feeling sorry for themselves, though whether that lesson will take is left up in the air. And you can’t help but nod in agreement with the insight of that lesson, and how you probably won’t take it to heart either. Anderson makes you love his movie and hate yourself at the same time for being precisely the same kind of dork he’s smacking around, and that’s just fine.

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MPAA: rated R for language

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb
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  • ladylorca

    HEY MA–
    Honey, I love your writing and no one who visits this site doubts the extent of your intellectual capacity. Sooooo…enough with reminding us in every other review how smart you are, how you’re a “thinking gal”, how it’s just so damn hard for those of superior intelligence–such as yourself–to relate to us half-witted earthlings, etc, etc. I’m sure it’s not intentional, but it comes across as very imperious. Your writing speaks for itself–this kind of repetition isn’t necessary, nor does it deem your self-proclaimed intellect any more existent simply because you happen to be the one stating it. Again. And again. You’re better than that.

  • Actually, I’ve seen Anderson’s movies criticized for their upper-middle-class whiteness, their reliance on pop music, their artifice, and their object fetishism –in fact, for nearly every rademark of his style–and for being shallow and insincere (or seeming to). But I’ve never seen them criticized for being intellectual. Most of the negative reviews I’ve seen to see him movies as little more than self-indulgent hipster design reels: clever, self-regarding and cutesy, but completely bereft of emotion.

    Now, I disagree with all that, but I can understand where it comes from just like I can understand why people hate the Decemberists, and it seems to me that your review is premised on a straw-man argument.

    It’s great that you love the smartness of Darjeeling, but why assume those who don’t like the movie dislike it for being too intellectual, rather than for seeming too artificial?

  • MaryAnn

    why assume those who don’t like the movie dislike it for being too intellectual

    Did I say that? Imply it? No.

    no one who visits this site doubts the extent of your intellectual capacity.

    But I’m not allowed to allude to it, eh? Check.

  • Yeah, actually, you did. His movies are not “‘accused’ of being ‘intellectual’.” They’re accused of being many far more unflattering things, but not that.

    Saying that accusing the movies of intellectualism in a tone derisive of intellect is ironic in light of their critique of intellectualism, would be true…if anyone did it. But I have never seen this argument made. If you have links to the contrary, by all means please share.

    I’m only picking nits though.

  • MaryAnn
  • Doubter

    I thought intellectuals tended not to gush.

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