Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Disorient Express

A new Wes Anderson movie is something like a new Radiohead album. It doesn’t happen very often, and you greet it with anxious excitement. You know you’re emotionally vulnerable, here, and you don’t want to get hurt. This is somebody you’ve come to rely on, but at the same time you never know if this is going to be the time they break your heart.

(Sometimes people tell me I take this stuff too seriously. I don’t know what they could possibly mean.)

Okay, this is an absurd conceit, (not to mention one I’ve already used,) but I’m going to run with it. Bottle Rocket is The Bends, right? Precocious and startling. Rushmore of course is Ok Computer, life-altering and era-defining. The Royal Tenenbaums could be Kid A, I guess—an idiosyncratic style taken to its logical extreme. And Life Aquatic roughly corresponds to Hail to the Thief—a satisfying synthesis of what’s gone before, if you like it, self-parody if you don’t. (I like them both, but I think Hail to the Thief is more of a success.)

Sure, Pablo Honey is the anomaly, but it always has been. I guess it could be the short film version of Bottle Rocket, which I’ve still never seen. (It’ll have to make it onto DVD someday.)

Now, though, I have to find a way to fit a new pair of works into this little scheme of mine—and I can already see it falling into place. First In Rainbows and now The Darjeeling Limited—each announces the beginning of the artist’s All Grown Up phase. Neither startling, both traversing familiar territory, but both satisfying. My heart remains unbroken.

If you’re reading this you’ve probably seen some or all of these movies, so you’re at least roughly familiar with the components that make up the Wes Anderson Experience. Men. Sad men. Impulsive, grandiose, domineering men with a childlike vulnerability. Missing parents. Dead parents. Lost friends. Melancholy and whimsy in equal measure. Bill Murray.

It’s all here in The Darjeeling Limited, although Murray is held to a priceless cameo, his crumpled face saying as much as any five pages of the script. Another family story, another sad and shattered family like the Tenenbaums, but like them united against the rest of the world. Three wealthy, miserable brothers, played by Anderson regulars Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman, as well as new initiate Adrien Brody, take a quixotic “spiritual journey” across India—though it gradually emerges that they are looking for more than simply enlightenment.

I wasn’t sure going in how this Adrien Brody thing was going to work, since he’s been sort of an underachiever thus far. He made a big splash in The Pianist, but has been a puzzle ever since, mostly showing up in forgettable films. (Hollywoodland, anybody? The Village? ) And The Pianist was an impressive, if heavy, piece of work—but as it turned out, Brody wasn’t acting! He really is that thin! But Wes Anderson, just as he did with Bill Murray, has found the True Reason For Adrien Brody, given him a home. As a leading man, he was sort of absurd, but here, as Peter, he’s a wonder to behold, a glorious cartoon version of himself. A bundle of sticks wearing shades, with that astonishing nose stabbing out at the world. (Putting him opposite Owen Wilson was genius—it’s a clash of the Nose Titans; it’s the nasal version of Pacino and DeNiro in Heat.) We joked after seeing the trailer for this movie that Brody was clearly playing the Luke Wilson role, what with the long face and the dark glasses—but actually Peter is the character that you have to believe Anderson had Ben Stiller in mind for. He’s jagged and tightly wound and resentful, Chas Tenenbaum if he had two brothers to be driven to distraction by. And it works: in place of Stiller’s bristling compactness, we have Brody’s clumsy, angular disarray. (Damn it. You just can’t write about this guy without using the word “angular.” You try it!) To see him running for a train in loving, Andersonian slow-motion is a revelation—he’s aerodynamic!

The other two leads, of course, are known quantities in this context; in fact, Anderson essentially co-created them both, made them what they are. They’ve each played the essential Anderson leading man—hyperkinetic and perpetually grief-stricken—and for each of them it was a defining moment. Owen Wilson’s Dignan was his triumphant debut, and he still hasn’t equaled him—he was both utterly irresistible and utterly helpless. (They’ll never catch him, because he’s fucking innocent! ) And Schwartzman’s Max Fischer, of course, is an icon; he’s part of our collective unconscious now—a portrait of the artist as a love-starved human tornado. It’s good to see the two of them together onscreen, finally. They do well.

Schwartzman, post-Max, hasn’t exactly shown a lot of range—he can give you neurotic, bumbling, or neurotic and bumbling. But here Anderson makes a conscious decision to play him against type—Schwartzman’s Jack, behind his ridiculous moustache, is numb and disconnected; something’s been drained out of him. And this is the time to mention The Darjeeling Limited’s most distinctive structural quirk—which might just be a gimmick and might be completely new. Because Jack appears before either of his brothers, in a brief Parisian prologue, in which he has bitter post-breakup sex with Natalie Portman. This would be a perfectly fine way to start the movie—except that it’s not presented as part of the movie at all. Nominally, this little story is a short film called Hotel Chevalier; it’s got its own opening and closing credits, and when it’s over the studio logo is shown again before The Darjeeling Limited proper starts. It was indeed apparently filmed in Paris, and the Darjeeling Limited was really filmed in India, so they really were entirely separate shoots. And Hotel Chevalier was available for download on iTunes for weeks before the film was released. So it does actually have a life of its own. But in what sense is it a separate film, exactly? The Darjeeling Limited, as far as I know, has never been shown without it, and it provides important exposition, particularly about Schwartzman’s character. Indeed, it emerges during the film that the story of Hotel Chevalier is a story that Jack will write. So in a way Hotel Chevalier exists within the world of The Darjeeling Limited, and it’s hard to imagine separating them. (Of course, Quentin Tarantino has just released Death Proof as a stand-alone film, presumably so everybody involved can make just as much money again when Planet Terror comes out. But it’s hard to imagine even those guys trying to release Don’t! or Thanksgiving from Grindhouse as an independent work.) So Hotel Chevalier might be a bold experiment in narrative technique, or it might just be a very clever marketing scheme. It’s cool with me either way.

But that Paris-to-India leap reveals another subtle shift in Anderson’s vision: he’s brought the characters closer to his own world. Dignan and Max (and Eli Cash, for that matter) come from dingy and faded blue-collar environments, and a veiled class resentment is hidden inside their fierce ambition. But Peter, Jack, and Francis are rich, because their father was rich. None of them even have to work at all—though Francis at least might. They’re free to wander the earth and be miserable, just like Wes Anderson and Jason Schwartzman.

And just like Owen Wilson—and it’s Wilson’s performance that you remember from this movie. Which is a little surprising; after all, he’s the Movie Star of the group, and he drawled and sleepwalked his way through Life Aquatic. But he spends most of The Darjeeling Limited with his head swaddled in elaborate bandages in the aftermath of a rather curious car accident, and still manages to be both funny and unsettling. Yeah, it’s a little obvious to say that Francis’s bandages and scars are outward signs of the deep injuries all three of these guys are suffering from—but it works because he looks so ridiculous, and because he still plunges implacably forward like an older and angrier Dignan. And of course it’s impossible to watch this film and not get a little chill thinking about Wilson’s recent failed suicide attempt. Because the character Francis of course was written for him, just as Dignan was—and of course Wilson himself, as co-writer, had a hand in creating Dignan, and Richie Tenenbaum, and Eli Cash himself, lovesick , drug addled, and helpless in the face of his own absurd success.

I called it a Grown Up movie, I guess, because there’s a sharp and bitter streak at the heart of it that wasn’t there in Rushmore or Tenenbaums. Both of those movies had blood and tears in plenty, they had characters who were suffering, but they both had a careful structure that led them to a tipping point—Dirk comes to see Max to try to bring him back, Richie wakes up in the hospital—after which each film seems to relent, somehow, each delivering a final act constructed as a series of longed-for redemptions. In lesser hands this would be a manipulative or schmaltzy device, but because those movies are so funny and so sad it has a powerful and unique effect. I still get a bit weepy at the end of Rushmore—“I didn’t get hurt that bad.” In The Darjeeling Limited, I think consciously, Anderson doesn’t deliver the same carthartic recessional—all the redemptions are equivocal, and the film’s real climax is one more abandonment in a long series of abandonments. And when Francis finally takes off his wrappings and stares at his own ravaged face in a mirror, it could be a sentimental or overblown moment—but the stunned and haunted look on Wilson’s face makes us accept it. “I’ve still got some healing to do,” he says. Yeah. We get that.

(Okay, I’ve been thinking about this some more, and something was bothering me: what about The Eraser? Well, I came up with an answer of sorts: The Squid and the Whale is The Eraser. Because, you know, Noah Baumbach co-wrote Life Aquatic, and this is his solo project. And, it’s practically a Wes Anderson movie, right? Sad, pretentious young men with parental abandonment issues? Yeah, it’s a stretch, I know.)

(Also--I wrote approvingly of Owen Wilson's battered looks in this movie, but the use of a shockingly and visibly injured central character like this reminds me a lot of Dave Eggers' You Shall Know Our Velocity, which in many ways is a similar kind of story. You think Eggers and Anderson have met? Have they been invited to the same parties? And if so, was Sufjan Stevens there? Picture the three of them eyeing each other warily. They'd have to have some kind of whimsical death match.)