Writer/director Wes Anderson can always become a cult leader if his film career ever flames out. His fans are so passionate for his quirky storytelling and characters that they can’t wait for each new Anderson film. To them, there is no Smackdown to be had between his latest film “The Darjeeling Limited” and “Rushmore” (which was his first major breakthrough after his freshman success “Bottle Rocket” and starred his go-to actor Jason Schwartzman for the first time). Fans know that each new film has to be screened immediately. For the rest of us, though, who see him as a mere mortal, it’s a legitimate question to ask whether his latest is worth rushing out to see on the big screen. Is he on an upward arc where each new film shows off a more assured filmmaker, or is he falling victim to his own PR and allowing his quirkiness to become simply indulgence? Let’s get started…
I saw “The Darjeeling Limited” last night at Hollywood’s Arclight Theater as part of a Writers Guild of America screening. After the film, both Wes Anderson and his co-screenwriter Roman Coppola took the stage for about 45 minutes of questions about their film which tells the story of three estranged brothers (played by Anderson regulars Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman, joined by Adrien Brody) who bond during a passage through India, and end up dumping both figurative and real baggage. The first half takes place on a train, a kind of sub-contintental “Hard Days Night.” The actors don’t look, talk or act like brothers but, in Anderson-reality, that hardly matters — they’re quirky and, on this train, that gets you evicted for screwing a stewardess, losing a poisonous snake and other infractions. Once on foot, they end up in various adventures on the way to meeting their mother (Angelica Huston) who’s turned into a nun and is living in the Himalayas. By the time it’s over, they’ve been to an Indian funeral and searched for the meaning of life. Anyway, Anderson said after the screening that he and his fellow writers (Schwartzman, Coppola) actually wrote it in India, wanting the country to “be the subject matter of the movie and not just the backdrop.” They also got a little mystical, saying that they felt that whenever anything unexpected happened in the writing process or the production that it was their responsibility to “say yes to everything.”
The Defending Champion
“Rushmore” was my first Wes Anderson film and there’s no question that after seeing it, I knew I’d gone someplace I don’t ordinarily go in film comedy. I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d seen but it felt like genius. Co-written with Owen Wilson, it tells the story of 15-year-old Max Fischer, a kid with real problems (as opposed to a real kid with problems) played by newcomer Jason Schwartzman. He played a teenage nutcase at the private Rushmore academy who was living in a dream world of his own creation, nearly flunking out but telling everyone he thought Harvard would be his “safe” college to go to. He ran practically every club the school had, lied about all kinds of things and fell obsessively in love with a first grade teacher. This character was, charitably, a pest and even though he wasn’t particularly credible, he was incredibly original. The entire ensemble cast of this film was great and gave the comedy they’d come to deliver a trace of tragedy. Bill Murray, in particular, gave probably his best career performance to date in this film as a despairing tycoon named Herman Blume (but without the usual mocking quality he’d brought before).
They say the secret of comedy is timing. “Rushmore” came at us unexpectedly because almost no one had seen “Bottle Rocket” and so most of us had no idea what to expect. And it knocked us over with its originality and, yes, quirkiness. “The Royal Tenenbaums” was another gem from Anderson. We were primed for “Life Aquatic” but it let us down (or Anderson did). Now we have “The Darjeeling Limited” and, odd and crazy as it is, it doesn’t surprise because, well, we expect to be surprised. That raises the bar for the film to succeed as a film.
I’m not entirely sure that it does. My wife hated it, thought it had no real plot, that it was smug and random and indulgent. My son’s date was an Anderson fan so she, predictably, liked it and after she actually got a chance to meet him and get an autograph she loved it. Jonathan seemed to like it just fine, too.
But the question that has to be asked is if a Wes Anderson film really has to succeed as a classic film in structure, dialogue or characters because that’s simply not what he does. Maybe it can stand on the shoulders of its predecessors and an audience is ready from frame one to go on the journey.
Or maybe, at the end of the day, it’s still just a film and, like most good films, it should have a satisfying story and characters who you like and can relate to. If that’s the case, it falls short. None of these characters feel like they belong in the same film together, and they don’t feel authentic. They are, like Max Fischer in “Rushmore,” authentic only for their reality which isn’t real.
I know several people who found the Max character, by the way, to be so off-putting that they just thought “Rushmore” was creepy. Out here in Hollywood, though, most people loved it which is probably because our reality isn’t real out here either.
I enjoyed going on a train ride through India. It’s something I’ll probably never do and so it was fun to take the trip. But considering that Anderson and his co-writers claim they wanted the film to be a completely authentic sense of India, they really failed. I really didn’t feel that I know the country much better now than I did before. We didn’t learn much of anything about real Indian mysticism, but we did go to a Catholic convent in the Himalayas. Too much quirk. Not enough real content. Maybe Wes Anderson shouldn’t have said “yes to everything.” It might have been better if he’d learned the power of “no.” I’m not saying he won’t make great films in the future but this isn’t in the same league as our winner, “Rushmore.” If you’re a modest fan, don’t pay for a first class theater ticket on “The Darjeeling Limited” but wait for the coach class DVD.