Sunday, October 28, 2007

Movie Review: Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited

I really like Wes Anderson's work. I like his visual style, I like the dialog he writes, I like the amazing sound tracks, and I like the pacing of his films. Most of all, I love thinking about the theme of every movie he's ever written (it is always the same), man's need to be loved despite his complete dirt-bag nature.

Having said that, The Darjeeling Limited is Anderson's laziest film to date. In a recent interview with James Sanford, Anderson explains:
I wanted to make a movie in India, and I wanted to make a movie on a train... The other thing was that I wanted to work with Jason and Roman. They're good friends of mine.
Anderson's description of his inspiration for this film rings true; I came out of the theater thinking that I had just witnessed the type of art that results when a talented writer has the desire to create, but no particular story in mind that he wants to tell. Like all of Anderson's films, the plot centers around characters who seek to connect with others despite their amazing lack of empathy and self-awareness. This time, the socially challenged heroes are three brothers who travel through India, hoping to connect with one another and their estranged mother while mourning the loss of their father. I have no problem with the thematic similarities between this film and Anderson's others. Some of my favorite authors spend their whole lives addressing one theme from various angles, and the result is inspiring. Austin, Hemingway, Stein, and Wolf were each preoccupied with one central question and dedicated their artistic careers to exploring the nuances of their chosen themes. Yet, The Darjeeling Limited hints at complexity rather than exploring it, and fails to express anything that Anderson has not portrayed more aptly in films past.

Perhaps what is more disappointing, however, is the complete lack of development of the three female characters in the film. Jack's ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman), Rita (Amara Karan), and Patricia (Anjelica Huston) are, to quote Paste's Andy Beta, "chilly and hastily sketched, serving mainly as objects of desire." Portman's character, who appears in a short film which precedes the main feature, serves to establish Jack (Jason Schwartzman) as needy, passive aggressive, and cruel. She is all of these things as well - needy since she's followed Jack to France, passive aggressive as she asks if he's slept with anyone and then gives an unconvincing "no" when he returns the question, and cruel as she manipulates the more spineless Jack. However, the scene's darkest moment comes when Jack notices that she has bruises all over her body, but does not bother to ask why, or if she needs help. By creating a seemingly abused character who is deemed unworthy of concern, the scene comes across as misogynistic.

Rita is also included in the film merely to establish Jack as a well-practiced ass, and perhaps to give Schwartzman a second sex scene. Their brief romance seems unlikely and superfluous to the story. Perhaps these two female characters have been included so that Anderson could make use of stray bits of dialog he liked, originally written for another film, for they seem out of place in this one. Rita gives Jack another moment in which to show a genius for passive aggressiveness by giving him someone to whom he can say "Thank you for using me." Of course, it was Jack who instigated the affair, but Rita, after a brief pause, accepts his view of the situation. She is not portrayed as a victim, but merely as a stand-in.

Patricia is the boys' mother, and mirrors Jack's ex in both looks and mannerisms. Her role is to provide a bit of an excuse for the boys' neuroses by feeding them some empty lines and promises and then disappearing on them.

Yet, while I acknowledge that in this film Anderson comes across as a poor writer of women, I can't agree with those who claim that his female characters are always "chilly," "hastily drawn" objects of male desire. Etheline Tenenbaum (Anjelica Huston) from The Royal Tenebaums is subtly, not sketchily, drawn and Thea from Shameless has is wrong when she claims that Ines from Bottle Rocket is Anthony's (Luke Wilson) romantic recourse after a 'white girl' rejects him (while there is a mention made of Anthony's ex, it is merely to mention that he has a mental collapse in her presence after realizing that he never wants to answer another question about water sports again). So, I don't think Anderson should be written-off. But I do hope that his next film has something more substantial to say. Or at least better jokes.

The Hathor Legacy's Mo Movie Measure (explained in this post): fail


Casmall said...

Great review. Spot on about the female characters in the movie. The scenes with Rita feels out of place in the film, Rita the character feels out of place in the film. Hell, she seemed out of time too, a 70s gentleman's magazine mile high club letter.
But, I still love Wes Anderson. DL is beautifully shot and directed. Maybe he should take a break and direct someone else's writing for a while.

La Pobre Habladora said...

Hummm - I'm a bit worried that is what he did with this one. DL is co-written by Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola. Anderson also has a lot to do with the work of Noah Baumbach and was the producer of Squid and the Whale (Baumbach also co-wrote Life Aquatic with Anderson).

Would you want the Wes Anderson TM look for a movie he directed but did not write? He has quite a distinctive visual style. Perhaps he should work with a female writer for a change.

Casmall said...

I don't know. Maybe he should stop collaborating period. Life Aquatic was teetering on the brink of fiasco.

La Pobre Habladora said...

It is funny (and right on) that you should mention that Rita feels out of place and time. Lots of people have noticed that the three brothers seem out of place in their environment; Racialicious point out that DL is another "another film in the time-honored genre of White People Working Out Their Issues Against an Exotic Backdrop."

But you are right, Rita doesn't feel like a character you'd find anywhere but in the fiction or "letters" section of a men's mag.