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.