The Darjeeling Limited takes dead aim at the rich boys

By Peter Valelly

In an interview with Paste Magazine a couple of years ago, writer-director Wes Anderson (“Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”) was confronted with a very particular, odd question from writer Jay Sweet. Does Anderson, Sweet wondered, ever encounter “‘quoters’ who wield their ability to converse solely in lines from his films as a badge of honor”? “I know the type,” Anderson responded.The “quoter” is, of course, a “type” – more precisely, it’s a stereotype, a caricature. But Wes Anderson’s cult following has become a full-fledged phenomenon straddling the imaginary mainstream-alternative divide, and now there is a curious profusion of people – usually high-school or college-aged, white, and middle or upper-middle class – who seem to be touched by, even obsessed with, Anderson’s work. I am one of them (just so you know, every time I say the phrase “very much so” it is a reference to my favorite scene in “The Royal Tenenbaums” – it’s funny in context, I swear), and I can say with some certainty that this cult was very, very excited about his latest film, “The Darjeeling Limited,” which opened at the Lagoon Theater on Oct. 12.

“The Darjeeling Limited” follows three estranged brothers – Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) – who meet in India to embark on a spiritual journey by train, hoping to revive their fraternal bond after their father’s death.

This plot, of course, is just a vessel for Anderson to make nearly the same movie for a fifth time, another malaise-ridden dramedy. But not quite: as his following has grown, Anderson’s films have grown denser, more impressionistic, and more insular.

“Rushmore,” his second film and his breakthrough, was formally indebted to the French New Wave but had a warmer sense of characterization and plot. The flawless film established the Anderson aesthetic: asphyxiating melancholia and wry, wise humor, often in the same moment. “The Royal Tenenbaums” rehashed this, but stripped some of the cohesion. The result remains my personal favorite of his films, but points towards the flaws of its successor, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” Derided by one friend as “a fashion show,” here was Anderson’s total descent into his own world. For those of us fascinated with this world, it’s perfectly fine, but the cinematic integrity of the film suffers. It’s brilliant central conceit – that it may, in fact, be the film made by Steve Zissou’s crew – may be its redemption, but it reeks of the same insularity that marked its defects.

The new one is something else. Since he “knows the type” – “I’m a movie quoter as well,” he admits in the Paste interview – Anderson is well-equipped to portray the quoter, his ardent fan. And that is what he seems to have done with the difficult and stilted “The Darjeeling Limited.” If Anderson’s quote-crazed fans increasingly resemble his characters, his characters now resemble his fans. With “The Darjeeling Limited,” Wes is socking it to the quoters.

What else are we to make of a scene where Jack, hoping to seduce a lovely Indian train stewardess, reaches for his iPod to put on a fey French pop song as background music? Until now, Anderson’s mise-en-scene was an anachronistic fantasy world, but now it has turned into the plaything of the self-fashioned indie literati who obsessively consume his movies. Even when the characters themselves don’t resemble the youthfully alienated denizens of Anderson Nation, the film still seems an elaborate prank on our sensibility. All of the humor feels bizarrely forced, as if Anderson is shoving it in there for an audience expecting the wit of his prior films, abrupt and awkward comedy in place of genuine whimsy.

If all of this sounds like faint praise, it’s not entirely. For all that I felt I was being mocked while watching it, I actually quite liked the movie. If anything, Anderson’s more mean-spirited moments made the film’s characters more intriguing. The relationships here were more thinly sketched than ever before, but this choice seemed deliberate. It has yielded Anderson’s most emotionally complex and compelling film to date.

This is exemplified by the film’s sparing use of pop music. His previous movies, especially the more impressionistic ones, were drenched in lovely pop and rock nostalgia. “The Darjeeling Limited” takes a similar approach, but a more focused one; the film’s original soundtrack opts almost exclusively for the acoustic grace of early Kinks. The most glaring exception to this rule is the enchanting use of the Rolling Stones’ sullen 1965 B-side “Play With Fire” during a goosebump-inducing montage. The song’s hushed and sinister tone takes on a shocking poignancy amidst the film’s disarray.

It’s here that we see, crucially, that Anderson can never make another “Rushmore.” The trajectory of his films has landed us in a perplexing emotional wasteland, and by mocking his fanbase, Anderson may also be catering to them, making his inner world theirs, too.