Arch Fiend

A month or so before The Darjeeling Limited was released, they made the Hotel Chevalier short film available on iTunes. Watching that sucked away any desire I’d had to see the full movie. I just kept thinking: This! This is exactly what people hate about Wes Anderson movies! It’s so overcrowded with affectations and artificially enigmatic dialogue that forces you to struggle to find some semblance of meaning, only to find the entire production crew smirking back at you.

It helps a little that the short film turns out to be a short story as written by the most self-satisfied character in the full movie, but the full movie still has most of the same flaws. I’d reckon that it’s got about 60% of what Anderson’s fans (including myself) love about his movies, but still 100% of what we hate.

Visually, it’s astounding. You often hear about authors and filmmakers making a work that’s essentially a love letter to a place, but somehow the magic of it never quite carries through; you go away thinking, “I guess you had to be there.” That’s not the case with The Darjeeling Limited’s version of India. There’s not a location in the movie that you can’t imagine seeing and immediately wanting to make a movie of it. And I have to wonder if the real version has that same color: they must’ve done some post-processing on it to make everything look that way, right?

But the story meanders, forcing you to keep paying attention to characters that stopped being interesting about 20 minutes in. But what disappointed me the most was how clumsy so much of it was: the guys dragging around their father’s baggage, Owen Wilson’s character taking off his bandages and saying “Looks like I’ve got some more healing to do,” their mother’s leaving them one final time followed by a cringe-inducing ritual on the top of a mountain. This is the “depth” we get, from the same people who made three movies that can have me going from “bemused” to “bawling in the middle of a crowded theater” on the basis of just one line?

The movie opens with another fairly ham-fisted scene, where Bill Murray’s desperately trying to catch the train but is passed at the station by Adrien Brody. ‘Cause you see, Anderson’s movies have built up this little repertory group, but Murray can’t quite make it into this one but hey folks let’s welcome our new co-star. I can remember a time when I would’ve thought this was extremely clever, but here it just annoyed me.

One good thing this movie does is give more evidence of how collaborative the moviemaking process is. I have been, and will likely continue to, refer to these movies as “Wes Anderson” movies. (I’ll point out that in this case, that’s just something that movie fans like me do; from everything I’ve seen, Anderson acknowledges the people in his group without hesitation, and never attempts to put forward the movies as being all his work). And the auteur theory has merit insofar as you can definitely see his influence in all of them — from the diorama-like composition down to the choice of title font, you’re given no choice but to see his hand in them.

(And by the way, if there had been one more long tracking shot of people walking or running in slow motion for no particular reason, I would’ve ejected the DVD immediately and it would’ve taken all my resolve not to smash the disc right then and there).

But the movies only transcend “visually interesting” when there’s somebody in the cast who can both live inside all of the excess eccentricity, and then cut through it to get at a real moment. All of these characters live in super-fake worlds with super-saturated colors and British Invasion music playing somewhere off in the distance, and they’ve all got their neuroses and personality flaws on display as if they were name tags. It all swirls around, begging for attention like a child, building up to the point where you think it’s going to collapse under the weight of its own artifice. Then it delivers one moment that peels all the artifice back and simply and succinctly says what the whole thing has been all about: in The Life Aquatic, it’s “I wonder if it remembers me;” in Rushmore, it’s Bill Murray’s character showing up for a haircut; and in The Royal Tenenbaums, it’s “It’s been a rough year, Dad.” (either Gene Hackman is a suitable substitute for Murray, or Ben Stiller’s a better actor than I’m willing to give him credit for). The Darjeeling Limited made me realize that how much I like a “Wes Anderson movie” is directly proportional to the size of Bill Murray’s part in it.

Roy Blount Jr. wrote an essay about Murray’s career (the two are good friends, apparently), saying basically that Murray’s greatest talent is being able to exist in the world of a movie and in the world of the audience at the same time. He doesn’t need to break character or mug at the camera, or stand detached from his character and make fun of everything that’s going on, but you still get the sense that he’s someone in the audience who stepped into a movie and is having a blast with it. Blount’s article was about Ghostbusters, but I think Rushmore and The Life Aquatic are the movies that make the best use of Murray’s talents.

They desperately need someone to ground them, to give the audience a point of focus as well as a reminder that all of this artifice is actually going somewhere, that there’s a point to it. I can see how The Darjeeling Limited‘s “spiritual journey” demands a certain amount of meandering “it’s not the destination but the journey” pointlessness, but ultimately, I needed there to be something “real” behind it all.