[National Review Online, October 12, 2007]
“We’re drowning in quirk,” wrote Michael Hirschorn in the September Atlantic Monthly. A few decades ago, humor was one thing (a Bob Hope pun, for example) and drama was another (say, “North by Northwest”). Now there’s all this in-between, poignant and sprightly in uneven doses. Here’s Napoleon Dynamite, dancing his friend Pedro’s way into high Student Government office; there’s David Cross on Fox’s “Arrested Development,” a would-be member of the Blue Man Group, self-blued except for the spot on his back he doesn’t know he couldn’t reach. Quirkiness is everywhere, even journalism. “This American Life” presents lives and topics, American and otherwise, that have been burnished to quiet strangeness. I got hooked with the episode about the man who discovered one of his cable channels was showing security-camera footage from a lobby somewhere. He went from thinking this hilarious, to tuning in out of occasional curiosity, to obsessing, taping it while at work so he could catch up when he came home. You know, stuff like that. Quirky.
The King of Quirk is surely Wes Anderson, director of “The Darjeeling Limited” and four previous films, all of them acclaimed and odd: “Bottle Rocket” (1996), “Rushmore” (1998), “The Royal Tennenbaums” (2001), and “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004). You can mix and match them like a deck of cards, and familiar patterns will keep emerging (not to mention familiar faces: Bill Murray, Angelica Huston, Jason Schwartzman, the brothers Luke and Owen Wilson). Perhaps the most consistent element is lead characters who are young adults (this seems to mean anyone under 40), and who are narcissistic, neurotic, dishonest and self-deceived. But they display these traits in such childlike and even innocent ways that it provokes both amusement and sympathy.
The siblings are closer to each other than to their parents, graying Boomers who are confident, vigorous, and emotionally unavailable. They deal with their grown children briskly and return to their self-obsessed aims. The parent most hilariously and awfully oblivious to his family’s needs is Royal Tennenbaum (played by Gene Hackman), and he gets many wonderfully horrible moments in the film that bears his name. Royal’s son’s wife has died, and he off-handedly tells his young grandsons, “I’m very sorry for your loss. Your mother was a terribly attractive woman.”
In “The Darjeeling Limited” both parents are missing: dad died a year before, and mom, who failed to show for the funeral, has vanished. The three brothers, Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman), haven’t spoken to each other in all that time. Francis, the oldest, has asked the other two to join him on a trip by train across India, and that’s why they gather on the Darjeeling Limited. Francis proposes that they “make an agreement” (a recurring phrase) that has three points: they will “find each other and bond together,” experience a “spiritual journey,” and “say yes to everything.”
You might know that “say yes to everything” is one of the ground rules of improvisational comedy. If your onstage partner throws you a line that requires agreement or disagreement, always agree. “Yes” is what makes things happen.
The actors and director have talked about how improvisational this film was, with little definite prepared in the way of dialogue; actors arrived on set each day in character, and stayed that way. This can make for an exciting movie if the actors are cooperating to reach upcoming points along a plotline. But this plot requires that pretty much nothing happen. Francis, Peter, and Jack have some eye-catching adventures (I thought of “A Hard Day’s Night”, with Schwartzman taking Ringo’s role), but none of these are indispensable moments building toward a decisive turn. Even a surprisingly (if not jarringly) tragic moment near the middle fails to add up to much in the long run. The typical Wes Anderson “young adult” is passive and disengaged, and most commonly seen in silent closeup wearing an expression that is mildly reflective, mildly sad, mostly blank. You can set these characters loose, but it still won’t make for exciting improv.
Sure, some things do happen in the movie. The boys eventually find their mom (Angelica Huston), and she is brisk, superficially cheery, and fully prepared to bolt. Peter buys and loses a poisonous snake. Francis requests a shoeshine, and the boy runs away with his expensive loafer. Jack seduces a train stewardess. Peter is using his dad’s razor, his belt, even trying to wear his dad’s prescription sunglasses, despite the headaches. He’s always rubbing his temples, and Jack calls him “Rubby.” The three brothers try to enact a ritual involving peacock feathers, but bumble it. Eventually, Jack asks, “I wonder if the three of us would have been friends in real life. Not as brothers, but as people.” Each of the brothers has a breakthrough, which would seem contrived if this film was by anyone else than Wes Anderson.
But it is by Anderson, so there’s plenty of reasons to see it, if just for the glorious look and feel of the thing. The textures and colors of India have never been so vibrant and inviting; the music, from both Bollywood and the Kinks, is perfect; and often enough the situations and dialogue really are hilarious. Also, the characters are full of endearing quirks. There’s a lot of that going around, but no one does it better than Wes Anderson.