Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Darjeeling Limited with nods to Rushmore and the Royal Tenenbaums

The Darjeeling Limited:  B+ (Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums:  A+)

The 1-2 punch of Rushmore and The Royal Tenebaums immediately placed Wes Anderson in the pantheon of directors I felt substantial admiration towards, a man who had just made two tentpole pictures that provided ballast for my cinematic sensibilities.  Granted, both films are smeared thick with nostalgia since I watched them during my days at Boston University.  I still remember the Rushmore bus pulling up outside the College of Communication during a typically overcast February day, where I spoke with Wes Anderson and Jason Schwartzman.  The film had come out of the Telluride Film Festival with a lot of good buzz especially concerning Bill Murray's career-reinventing performance as millionaire Herman Blume, rival to Schwarztman's Max Fischer for the affections of school teacher Rosemary Cross (played by the lovely, understated Olivia Williams).  Remember, back in 1998, the "serious" actor thing had bitten Murray, but he had not been infected yet (The Razor's Edge was 14 years in the rear view, while Lost in Translation was still 5 years away down the road).  Rushmore marked a turning point in a career that had stalled (deliberately or not, who knows). 

His performance deserved all the accolades bestowed upon it, but Anderson and co-writer Own Wilson deserve much of the credit.  They avoided the sophomore jinx following Bottle Rocket and (most impressively) they did what true craftsmen/artists should do:  they honed their craft, fine-tuning the delicate emotional baggage their characters often carry with an off-hand comedic sensibility that presents itself in Anderson's manicured images and the script's piercing dialogue.  The priceless shot of a disheveled Herman Blume, holding flowers and lighting up several cigarettes in a hospital elevator, being asked by Max,"Are you all right?"  The succinct response pregnant with pathos:  "I've been better."  Or the epiphany on Blume's face that Anderson captures when Max introduces his father at the barbershop: simple, sincere, heartbreaking.  Scenes like these encapsulated the whole tone of Anderson's film in a single scene:  utter compassion for its characters, laugh-out-loud visual acuity, and the dialogue that stirs the two together to create the perfect blend of melancholic euphoria.  I had never felt so high from being so low.
The Royal Tenenbaums continued Anderson's refinement of cinematic stylings whether it be his impeccable images or humanist eccentrics.   Some critics have carped about his methods (Stephanie Zacharek in Salon:  "The movie is so calculating that I could only imagine Anderson sitting in some darkened room somewhere, toting up the laughs and tears on a child's chalkboard."), but his careful consideration of what is/isn't shown and said in the mise-en-scene only accentuates the lives of his characters and what they desire:  love.  Love for what they want, but cannot have; love for the family unit and its sense of community/kinship; love for belonging somewhere, nowhere, anywhere.  Like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums lays out a world of deliberate artifice that walks a fine line between whimsical melancholy and contrived whimsy.  And while many critics accuse Wes Anderson of being too diaramic with his conceits and characters, sucking the life out of both because of a fanatical attention to detail that strangulates the proceedings, I don't buy it.

If anything, Anderson is one of the great humanists working in film-making today, a director who cares so much abut his characters and the worlds they inhabit that he wants to nail down every minute detail with microscopic precision in order to invite us into their world and invest us in their experiences.  In many ways, Anderson is the cinematic equivalent of John Irving:  someone who is adept at mixing the broad/subtle comedy of life with the physicality/emotionally violent conflagration of individuals exposed when human beings reveal themselves.  Unlike Irving, who has tackled thorny subject matter such as religion, gender politics, abortion, war, and whose plots sprawl and leap and gallop across lifetimes, Anderson has entrenched himself  on the familial battleground to lay bare the wounds of his creations, and his intense love for the characters that populate his stories presents itself in the sum of a film's parts:  art direction, costume, cinematography, editing, location scouting, and musical choice.  Watch as Margot Tenenbaum steps off the bus to the glorious strain of Nico's lamentation, "These Days," and she sees Richie; Anderson's switch to slow motion precisely implicates us in Richie's universe, an emotional tsunami where you're holding your breath under water while trying to climb to the surface.   Watch as Richie stares blankly at himself in the mirror and announces,"I'm going to kill myself," while Elliot Smith warbles "Needle in the Hay"; Anderson's use of blue/green gels dowse the atmosphere in the character's emotional detachment, and the shock cuts slash up the sense of organization that's marked the film and characters' lives.  Outside of Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson, nobody packs such a wallop with the juxtaposition of visual/aural accompaniments to infuse an audience with a total immersion into the world of film, while also providing the giddy, palpable thrill of discovery:  "This is a fucking movie!"
Next came The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.  I have still only seen the film once.  It lacked the emotional glue that held Anderson's previous two films together.  I laughed little, and I cared nothing for the characters.  Maybe it was the departure of co-writer Owen Wilson (who starred) with new co-writer, Noah Baumbach.  Whatever the reason, I didn't like the world created.  I didn't believe the animation added anything of value to the movie; instead, it proved distracting by taking away from the father-son dynamic of Wilson and Bill Murray's characters.  Along with the odd burst of pirate violence, this film left me disappointed so much so I wasn't even in a real rush to see The Darjeeling Limited.  The danger with idol worship is when the curtain is pulled back, you're bound to be more than disappointed; more likely, you'll experience a sense of betrayal at the fact that such an individual would inflict such hurt.
Thank God I didn't listen to myself.  The Darjeeling Limited is not a great film like either of the two already discussed.  It's a modest film, more scaled down than Anderson's previous two films, and new ground is not shattered here story-wise.  But it does what Anderson does best:  family dysfunction punctuated with dry humor all sealed within his hermetic visual wonderland.

The film tells the story of three brothers:  Jack (Jason Shwartzman), Francis (Owen Wilson), and Peter (Adrien Brody).  They've all joined up on the Darjeeling Limited, a train that will take them on a trip throughout India as they attempt to reconnect at the point in their lives where all of them are crippled at an emotional level none of them can quite articulate.  Most of the film, they simply discuss their current predicaments, while they alternately bicker with each other and deny the admittance of authentic feeling.

Much of the film is structured to have an obvious literal/figurative duality that Anderson presents without much artfulness, but he does it in such a manner that it never becomes too heavy-handed.  From the outset, we know the brothers are embarking on a journey in a foreign country while also undertaking a journey to find their mother while also journeying within themselves to address their personal crises.  This most clearly shines through in Anderson's technical approach.  He often shoots the three main actors so they're looking directly into the camera, but he will pan away, an external reflection of each brother's inability to be direct or straight about the baggage (again, literal and figurative) they lug around, never being able to open up with one another.  Each brother erodes a sense of integrity with the others as they compile a mound of half truths and white lies, while they believe such calculated works of fiction will prevent any harm from happening. 

India stands in as the film's fourth major character, a place overflowing with wonders, secrets, and beauty.  This change in scenery doesn't open up Anderson's diligent, refined approach to filmmaking and storytelling so much as it beautifully complements the myriad ways in which a person/country appear to others.  The eventual destination for the brothers (and viewers) is unimportant, and the cliche "It's the journey and not the destination" is fully embraced by Anderson.  Indeed, the destination leads the three brothers to their mother, and many of their problems stem from mother/woman issues (Peter's inability to confront his wife in the face of impending fatherhood; Jack''s longing for the comforts of his recent ex-girlfriend, played by Natalie Portman in the short film Hotel Chevalier).  Anderson's bluntness when trafficking in metaphors might strike some as heavy-handed, but he's developed such a wonderfully cinematic shorthand that allows for this viewer to forgive him his tendency to be blindingly obvious with some narrative decisions.  A number of sequences highlight this talent, while furthering the themes of isolation and disconnectedness (A beautifully compartmentalized series of snapshots into the lives of the train's travelers; Peter overtaking Bill Murray's character in a race toward the train set to The Kinks "This Time Tomorrow"; a funeral involving the death of a local village boy).
After The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited was a nice reminder of Anderson's skill as both writer and director.  It might not have been as exquisitely special as Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums, but I felt relieved to see Anderson continue to mine the complexities of relationships that exist between people, and his broken-heart-on-a-sleeve approach serves him and us well in ultimately delivering a sincerely felt film.

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