The first Wes Anderson movie I saw was The Royal Tenenbaums and it was on a lazy weekend while I was working at a summer camp. Another counselor and I went into the nearby town to buy pizza and rent some movies. I had recently heard about Anderson and was interested; I remember her being interested in it only because she thought it was another Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson comedy. It is not just another comedy and I think our different reactions to the movie are rather typical of responses to Anderson in general: I fell completely and immediately in love with the film's quirky and loving attention to nuance and minutia while she was simply bewildered by it and probably indifferent to the film as a whole. I don't think she hated it; she just didn't get it.
There is a tendency for some critics and fans to snobbishly say to a film's detractors, "you don't get it," as if this declaration somehow demonstrated a film's value or, worse, as if they, the fans, were somehow privy to secret knowledge about the film which everyone else missed because they are simply not as intelligent. I have often wondered whether I sound like this. The truth is, however, that some people "get" Anderson and others do not. But it's not a matter of esoteric gnostic insight or even about being smarter than the average bear; it's simply a matter of sensibility. Anderson is not the most insightful or mysterious of directors; his stories are not really all that more intelligent than any other well-made and serious comedy or drama. But it is his visual style, his lavish attention to detail and minutia, and his quirky and almost excruciatingly deadpan sense of humour, which set him apart. You either like that or you do not.
The Darjeeling Limited is the story of three estranged brothers, Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrian Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman), who have not seen each other since their father's funeral over a year ago. Each of the brother's lives are imploding in various ways and so, convinced and slightly duped by Francis, the eldest of the three, they decide to make a "spiritual journey" across India on a train, the Darjeeling Limited.
The story is not complicated and I don't suppose it needs to be. The journey metaphor has been seen many times before and we are all familiar with its tropes and idioms. Anderson is not reinventing the wheel. What is interesting about this story, however, and what separates it from most other road or journey movies, is how little actually happens on this journey. They don't meet a wide variety of odd characters; they are the odd ones. At the end of their journey, they don't find anything - no wizard behind the curtain, no Kurtz in his jungle; they find themselves. The brothers, Francis especially, are deliberately attempting to prompt some sort of religious experience; they've scheduled their enlightenment and reconciliation on the itinerary. And yet, even though they tell themselves they have noble motives, they are consistently petty and thoughtless, self-indulgent and more often than not they exploit their exotic surroundings in a typically Western and material manner. They visit temples and spend more time buying shoes than saying prayers. It is only when they are finally forced off the itinerary and confront the humanity of the people around them that they discover something profound and ultimately unarticulated about themselves.
Of course, all the regular criticisms of Anderson could still be said of The Darjeeling Limited. The film appears pretentious and arrogant and seems to be filled with an inflated sense of self-importance. I think it is. And I think it probably deserves to be. Anderson has achieved something that most filmmakers rarely do: the creation of a completely idiosyncratic and convincing style. He inhabits every frame of this film. He is complete control and he never falters in his execution. Nearly every frame is densely packed with details, each one of which contributes to a deeper and more satisfying understanding of the characters. However, the one criticism that I do think holds water, a few drops anyway, is that Anderson is sometimes a bit too heavy-handed in his execution. Some of his metaphors seem too obvious. Most of the time this fits in nicely with the film's themes, as when Francis, who is looking too hard for an authentic experience and probably measuring his life according to the familiar conventions of a journey metaphor, receives a flash of insight when their train becomes "lost." Other times, though, this heavy-handedness seems unnecessary, as if Anderson could have achieved the same thing without actually having his characters articulate it.
Yet while it sometimes feels like Anderson is hitting you over the head, it at other times feeling like he is a master of the ambiguous and the unspoken, as in the brilliantly executed short film Hotel Chevalier, a companion piece of sorts to The Darjeeling Limited. Anderson can be subtle; sometimes he chooses to be obvious. In either mode, he's crafting brilliant and enjoyable films. The Darjeeling Limited doesn't replace The Royal Tenenbaums as my favourite of his films but it does once again validate my opinion of him as an artist. The Darjeeling Limited demonstrates that after five feature length films, Wes Anderson is not loosing steam and remains an important and brilliant director.