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.)


david james keaton said...

See, this is the review I was waiting for. And not just 'cause of your sweet title. (is that yours? you must very proud of that) It's 'cause of all these half-ass reviews saying Anderson is treading water, nothing new, etc. I also was not heartbroken. Even though it might seem like I have less at stake without the framed “Bottle Rocket” poster in your living room like you guys, it was my idea to drag a couple people there so some pressure was felt that it better be good if I’m gonna use it as ammo to convince the same group to check out, say, “The Mist” next week. Or maybe a Cronenberg movie someday (a tougher sell) However, the new Cohen Brothers flick feels so much like a sure thing that I don’t even need to hype it. It’s like the early days of “Fargo” where it sells itself and everybody’s telling ME I need to go like I’ve never heard of them. Like I didn’t drag Jerry and Glen to see “Barton Fink” in high school and then put up with the verbal abuse on the car ride home because of it (similar to the night I said, “Let’s go see Wild At Heart! It’s the nut that did that nasty Blue Velvet movie we stole from Showcase Video!” “What movie? Oh, yeah, “fuck fuck fuckers! I’ll fuck anything that moves! Fuckity fuck!” “Yeah, that one, Jerry.”)

Anyhow, I totally dug this movie, but I’ve had to defend it to some people (almost as much as I had to defend “Ravenous!”) and I’ll get to their points in a second. First, to explain my need for such a long rambling comment about this movie weeks later, I didn’t get a chance like this the night I saw it because I dropped my wallet in the theater and realized on the way to the car. This walk to the car is an important time. This is precisely the point when perfect observations about a movie that people are on the fence about can forever steer them to admitting they liked it. But people went on to their cars and I went back to look for my wallet, trying to get the staff to understand what had happened:

“When did you lose it, sir?”
“Just now yo!”
“Where did you lose it?”
“Somewhere in India, bee-yatch! Start the movie over so I can retrace my hand movements!”

Nate found it jammed between the seats, again proving that replacing you with him out here as your Pittsburgh doppleganger was a good move (more like a combination of you and Tom Sawyer actually with all his crawfish wrangling. Fucker brought a live shrimp to the radio station in a jar as a gift. Great gift, instant guilt as I couldn’t keep it alive more than 3 days)

So me and Mags dug it, Nate dug it enough to make fun of Owen Wilson’s bandaged first appearance, “What’s up, guys! Just next door killing myself!” And I actually got my biggest laugh then he unspools those bandages Invisible Man-style for the clichéd reveal of “change” and the movie’s still ornery enough to subvert that with his face still being mangled as shit with strange Vulcan ears and he goes, “Uh, I guess I still have some healing to do.” That struck me as really funny, but no one else in the theater really guffawed like I did. Oh, well. I guess it was SORT of talking about emotional healing, but you can’t tell me it was a nasty way to make fun of the line as soon as he said it. But, yeah, I figured the world was on board. Sweet, detailed train, quirky music, the one Wes Anderson violent moment, daddy issues. Check, check, check! Does anyone want anything else? Well, apparently they do. Bad reviews everywhere in the press, AND from my crew! See, if I’d just had their ear in the parking lot on that vulnerable walk to the car. I could have easily deflected the “eh, he’s treading water” argument by saying, “NO! you’re mistaking a distinct style for treading water, dude! Back in the day, you could walk into a lot of movies, watch five minutes and be like, “Yep! Kubrick. Yep, DePalma. Yep, Walter Hill” (I can anyway). Today, not so much. Even though I was like “Yep, Peter Jackson!” at a lot of the “Lord of the Rings,” that was based on a decade of slasher movies he made with a lot of the same gags, and I challenge the desperate fans of his now to do that in reverse. I doubt they’d watch “Bad Taste’s” birth-by-chainsaw moment or the AIDS-ridden rabbit puppet in “Meet The Feebles” and be like, “Yep! Oscar-winner, Hollywood darling Peter Jackson.”

Point is, these damn kids just ain’t used to directors with distinct styles. And when one finally does come along? They mistake cozy familiar goodness that just keeps on working and working (and, come on, he’s not the first to milk family issues) for “treading water” or not taking any chances. What the hell do they want from him then? And if they don’t want what he continues to deal out, how could they want anything else without admitting they want it because of the things they say they don’t want. How many times can I say “want.” Want.

Rise of Kail said...

I didn't hate this movie, wouldn't even say I disliked it. But it wasn't Tenenbaums and it certainly wasn't Rushmore. It was okay. I'm glad I saw it. Don't feel the need to see it again. That is all. Just because its Wes Anderson and you can tell its Wes Anderson because of the style doesn't make it good.

And by the way I thought we were past the point where Americans saw themselves as colonialistic gods. Was there really a scene in that movie where they save two Indian children and then go to the funeral of the third child they couldn't save. Although Owen Wilson's line "look at these assholes" right before they got swallowed up in the river was the funniest part of the movie.

Matt said...

Okay, certainly the, uh, post-colonial critique of Darjeeling Limited is a valid one, but I don’t know if it’s relevant, exactly. I mean, you could take similar shots at the earlier movies—clearly they were trotting that Kumar guy out for laughs. (And clearly he enjoyed it. “Best play ever, man!”)

In all honesty, I wasn’t sure about that village sequence myself. But that’s how these movies operate, by presenting these traditional mawkish redemptive moments and then subverting them just enough that people like us can stand them. (I once described Rushmore as “Field of Dreams for hipsters.”) You said it yourself: Owen Wilson calls the dead kid an “asshole!” And then cutting in the excruciating “garage” episode, played more or less completely straight, kills whatever sentimentality might have been left.