I arrived at five minutes to 6 o’clock, early enough to grab a parking spot directly in front of the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica and late enough that I didn’t have to feed the meter. 90 minutes before showtime, they were already haphazardly lined up along the sidewalk; the Wes Anderson faithful, skinny and pale and bookish and arranged just so, standing as though they weren’t an official line, as though they’d just turned up and found themselves grouped into casual clusters shooting the shit by accident.
The truth is, I feared them. I feared them because, except for a mild genetic disorder that renders me incapable of having any discernable sense of style, I could’ve been one of them. I could’ve been one of these people who make other people dislike Wes Anderson movies. Who were they? Well, there wasn’t a uniform exactly, but there was a definite type. They were a branch of Nerd-kind. The Urban Nerd.
A disproportionate number of them seemed to be in glasses. You’d think being a Wes Anderson fan was bad for the vision. Perhaps straining to admire all the tiny, carefully composed details of Wes Anderson movies had ruined their eye sight.
Upon closer examination, I started to notice more than a vague, general type. These weren’t just Nerds. There was a disturbing specificity to some of these people. There were Adidas and vests and blazers and more than a few Richie Tenenbaum headbands – cool in school when you’re the only one doing it and everyone just thinks you’re quirky and odd I suppose, but together with a bunch of others who had the same idea, well it was kind of embarrassing. Or maybe that was just me. Maybe the gene that robs me of my sense of style is the same one that artificially heightens my sensitivity to humiliation. It’s true. I am frequently embarrassed.
Most likely however, I think I was troubled because it’s vaguely disturbing when you realize something near and dear to you personally has become some kind of a cult beyond your own control or understanding. It has happened before with The Big Lebowski, there are whole Lebowski festivals for god’s sake, and now here it was happening with Wes Anderson. Wes Anderson was a thing. He probably always has been, but somehow I’d never noticed.
Now here they were, wearing their Wes Anderson fandom like merit badges; cinema taste as fashion statement. Here was a red knit cap and there a Max Fischer satchel… or was it a man purse? I don’t know, but as I made my way inside, I was relieved to see there were no red berets or light blue track suits. There were no yellow jumpsuits and no blazers with school patches on them; nothing but the sweet, blissful anticipation of a movie I’d been looking forward to all year long: Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited.
Then something made me turn in my seat.
I don’t know what got my attention, but behind me a young man fished into his coat pocket and produced an iPhone to the quiet approval of his row of friends. “You’ve gotta see this,” he said as he plugged in the earbuds and touched the screen a few times. Even as he handed the tiny black rectangle with the glowing screen to the girl next to him I knew what was going to happen. He’d loaded Hotel Chevalier onto his $600 iPhone and was now showing it off to his friends before the movie. Something in me snapped. This was just wrong. Horribly wrong.
I think I may have visibly flinched, but in my mind’s eye I imagined launching over the back of my seat, grabbing the scrawny punk by the lapels of his Wes Anderson blazer and then strangling him to death with the wires of his own earbuds. The irony was that Hotel Chevalier played before the movie anyway, so really the guy had spent $600 for absolutely no good reason. And no, I’m not counting the cheesy $100 store credit the chump got when all the weirdoes who actually waited in line to buy an iPhone on the first day complained about Apple’s sudden $200 price break. Suckers.
Also, for the record, if you get the chance, watch Hotel Chevalier right before you watch The Darjeeling Limited. It’s not mandatory, but both play off of one another and are better appreciated together the way they were conceived.
Anyway, the review:
A traumatic accident is the kind of thing that can lead a person to introspection, to re-evaluate their lives. Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson) has had just such an experience. Still in bandages from a motorcycle accident that sent him face first into the side of a hill, he has summoned his two brothers Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and Peter (Adrien Brody) to join him in India for a trip across the country aboard the train of the film’s title.
The three haven’t spoken in a year, not since their father’s funeral and, in his contemplative state of mind, Francis hopes this will be a kind of spiritual journey with his brothers, drawing inspiration from the country and the countryside so that they may bond and come closer together. He’s got the whole trip planned out, from the spiritual sites they will visit to the cereal they will eat for breakfast.
Spirituality and togetherness can’t be scheduled on an itinerary however and, jacked up on Indian prescription cough medicine and pain killers, the brothers fight. They lie to one another and they keep secrets. It turns out there are reasons they’ve been apart for a year even if those reasons are never spoken. “I wonder if we would’ve been friends in real life,” Jack wonders. “Not as brothers, but as people.” That’s the ultimate question of the movie and for a while the prospects look grim. Eventually, their fighting gets them kicked off the train and the boys go off itinerary. This is where things really start to get interesting.
Except for the cough medicine and pain killers, this sounds like the stuff of drama, and it is, but as filtered through the skewed sensibility of Wes Anderson (with writing input from Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola), Darjeeling is filled with quirky humor, amusing situations, odd characters and funny bits of dialogue. This isn’t necessarily a belly-laugh kind of movie, but it’s gentle and it goes down easy.
It is also very much a Wes Anderson film, as stylized and quirky as The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. To some people that’s good and to others it’s bad. Anderson’s style can create an emotional remove and he’s criticized for being all surface and no soul. An interesting thing happens in Darjeeling, however. The first half of the film operates as you’d expect, like one of Max Fischer’s plays. Things change however when the brothers are kicked off the train. The movie takes a bit of a turn for the serious. It’s a welcome shift and what follows is a bit more realistic and feels more heartfelt than anything Anderson has done since Bottle Rocket.
Once off the train, the brothers are stripped of their defenses. Being removed from their element, they’re forced to abandon their narcissism and deal with each other as brothers and as friends. It sounds kind of sentimental and overwrought, but it’s not. It’s subtle and moving. It gets to the heart of things that Anderson has flirted with more obliquely in his last two films.
The result is a performance from Owen Wilson that is his most enjoyable since Dignan in Bottle Rocket. Francis is more grounded and real than Tenenbaum‘s flaky Eli Cash and he lacks the affectation Wilson brought to Aquatic‘s Ned “Kingsley Zissou” Plimpton. Jason Schwartzman who often feels out of place in other people’s films, is right at home here. It’s good to have Max Fischer back. Adrien Brody is the newcomer, but he also fits in nicely, bringing his own style to the Wes Anderson show.
Of course there is the soundtrack, a highlight to every Wes Anderson movie. This one is terrific and it goes a long way to making The Darjeeling Limited feel a little different from Anderson’s other films even while it’s navigating similar thematic territory. As you’d expect there is a Rolling Stones song and a few Kinks songs, but the bulk of the music is drawn from the films of Satyajit Ray and the early Indian films of Merchant-Ivory. There is also no contribution from Mark Mothersbaugh this time around.
In many ways, The Darjeeling Limited is a much simpler film than Royal Tenenbaums or Life Aquatic. Despite the location work, the film was shot in 38 days compared to Aquatic‘s 100 and the difference shows. Darjeeling is looser and more relaxed. It’s more personal. It also never struck a false note and there was never a slow spot. If anything Darjeeling feels a little slight, but it’s genuine and entertaining. All in all it was a most enjoyable ride and one of my favorite movies of the year so far.
When it was all over, after the credits finished unspooling and the lights came up, I turned and looked back at the Nerds I’d come in with. Perhaps still feeling the warm glow of the film, I somehow felt affection for them. In a way, we were all united by a love of Wes Anderson and maybe that was enough. In the spirit of The Darjeeling Limited, maybe in the end we could be friends…not as people, but as brothers. Anyway, girls in glasses are hot.
The Darjeeling Limited. USA 2007. Directed by Wes Anderson. Written by Wes Anderson, Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola. Cinematography by Robert Yeoman. Production design by Mark Friedberg. Starring Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brody. 1 hour 31 minutes. Rated R for language. 4 stars (out of 5)