Last week brought us the first glimmerings of the small, intricate world that Wes Anderson plans to lock himself and his wheelhouse of celebrities away next: the Paris-via-New York-via Austin, Texas auteur will be returning to the medium of talking, animated animals on Isle of Dogs. But it will also mark his return to the Asian continent (despite the largely white vocal cast, the titular dog island appears to be imagined to exist off the coast of a Japan at some future time), a move that will bring to mind his last voyage to the East, which happened to open the New York Film Festival ten years ago. Co-written with the cousins Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, and staring the latter, The Darjeeling Limited holds a strange place in the oeuvre of a director whose work is so often appreciated like gems in a rarified collection. “Modernist to the extreme and a bit stilted as a result,” hemmed David Ehrlich at Indiewire earlier this year. Less ambivalent was the filmmaker and critic Bilge Ebiri, who blasted it as “the one outright disaster in Anderson’s body of work.” Ooof.
But in very literal and almost purposeful way The Darjeeling Limited does feel like Anderson’s least satisfying work, so it makes some sense that it would satisfy the least amount of people. The elements of his past and even future work are very much there but they don’t seem to do anything. The familial unity project of The Royal Tenenbaums gives way to the scene of a mother (Anjelica Huston) fleeing her children (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman) in the night. The meet-cute love story—between one of the children, heartbroken novelist Jack (Schwartzman) and a train attendant (Amara Karan)—fizzes out without so much of a shrug. The father, the oedipal site of each of all of Anderson’s previous dramas as well as the site of his most memorable characters (Bill Murray’s Herman Blume, Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum), is dead before the movie even begins. Despite its obvious visual abundance, Anderson had designed the train cars himself, filling them with typical Andersonian noise, the movie felt sparse like the sweltering Indian desert that his train would itself lost in. “Is that symbolic?”
In that light, The Darjeeling Limited felt like something else: a stylistic pallet cleanser for an artist whose collection of cinematic motifs and styles were becoming rigorously studied by film critics and even more studied, and copied, by last decade’s creative class. The broken, shambled world of Broken Rocket, populated by dreamers whose ambition felt like a sarcastic rejoinder to your own had been repurposed by Jared Hess into an MTV product called Napoleon Dynamite. An NBC TV star named Zach Braff put together a collection of warbling unsure, self-centered Anderson rejects and dressed them in Urban Outfitters chic and called it Garden State. Even Noah Baumbach, who was inspired to direct again after working with Anderson on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, made a bigger impact with his own nautically-titled comeback, The Squid and the Whale. Barely a few months after The Darjeeling Limited was greeted with a collective shrug, a twee, sardonic comedy about straddling the territory between teenage boyhood and adulthood called Juno, incidentally also distributed by Fox Searchlight, took home an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, an award that Anderson would be nominated for no less than three times in his career.
While Anderson’s most acclaimed work was still to come, it was hard not to feel like this was Anderson’s peak as a concept, a stylistic brio that felt so diligently organized like somebody else’s desk on the first day of school, was now something anybody could do. In this light, the alienating formalism and truly byzantine plot of The Darjeeling Limited felt like a punk gesture: just try and copy this.
As a pricey punk move, The Darjeeling Limited pairs easily with its predecessor, The Life Aquatic—the follow-up to The Royal Tenenbaums that bombed viciously at the box office and still holds the distinction of being holding the lowest rating of any of his directed works on review aggregating websites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Similarly, it centered around a journey in a self-contained vessel, similarly traveling to the formerly colonialized confines of Asia (prominent, in The Life Aquatic’s second act, is an attack by Filipino pirates). Much of Anderson’s persona, from his Curious George-esque outfits to naming his production company American Empirical Predictions, betrayed a sort of cozy nostalgia for colonial relations, or at least some interest in exploring them. A movie like The Life Aquatic attached itself to the explorer narrative, namely Cousteau, namely Melville, symbols both of art made at the far reaches of the empire.
Bill Murray’s Steve Zissou realizes the time has come to give up the ship but Anderson presents a more ambivalent picture on Darjeeling Limited, what is ultimately a tourist narrative about discovering spiritual enlightenment in someplace “other.” Much of this is ironized (they are blundering oafs, in one of the movie’s few effusive reviews, Armond White compares their dynamic to The Three Stooges, albeit with the “sense of mortality of a Chekhov play”) but certain scenes don’t quite fit into that reading.
One, in particular, the film’s second or third climax: the brothers attempt to save the lives of some children crossing a river. One of them, Peter (Adrien Brody) does not succeed. He murmurs, in apparent grief, “I lost mine,” a phrase with an uncomfortable possessive article and one that scans earnest. (unlike an earlier proclamation, delivered to the real-life town of Jodhpur, India: “I love how this country smells…it’s spicy.”) Jonah Weiner, at Slate, condemns: “The child does the bothersome work of dying so that the American heroes won’t have to die spiritually,” a judgment that squares if the movie is watched like a conventional piece of indie cinema: irony building on irony building up to a moment of earnest realness, the soul of the piece. Ray Davies may be singing tortured songs about being British but is anything really learned? Here’s a sequence at the film’s end: Francis attempts to rehire his servant, Jack continues to stalk his ex-girlfriend by voicemail and Peter continues to excuse his absence to his pregnant wife.
The Darjeeling Limited gets pinned down as a stylized experiment in Truffaut formalism against a backdrop of Satyajit Ray movies but, as Anderson explained to Richard Brody once, he was really giving his take on Cassavetes. Basically, the whole thing came together while Anderson was on a walk with Schwartzman in Paris and decided to make, per Schwartzman, “the most personal thing we could possibly make.” This helps when you consider that the only coherent thing that The Darjeeling Limited is coherently about is money—the brothers are meeting to remember the death of their father but he is only present as a monetary enabler of a lifestyle that permits hundred-dollar loafers, printed-out itineraries, and a paid assistant. The movie’s only flashback is, coincidentally, their shared attempt to take his Porsche to his funeral. If they want to leave him behind by coming together through incomplete gestures like blowing on feathers or being abandoned by their mother, who has shunned the aforementioned lifestyle of wealth, they cannot leave the privilege they were born in but must, instead, find meaning in it. For Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola and Wes Anderson, who idolized what they represented, this feels very personal indeed.
This opens another avenue to another version of The Darjeeling Limited, the one that exists outside any social crit, and a reason why the movie incongruously pops to the top of certain Wes Anderson lists but never any that are vetted and agreed upon. If you look aside from the setpieces, the movie alternatively reveals itself to be about communication, a brotherly version of Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation (also a very personal meditation about having too much money). Evan Puschak, who makes video essays under the alias The Nerdwriter, argued in this mold that The Darjeeling Limited remains “the most human” of his films because it represents the drama of attempting to find yourself in other people, essentially the anxiety that you are all alone in the universe, that outside your capacity to satisfy others, you are nothing.
Eventually, Anderson would need to actually make money in order to stay relevant and the movies that followed, from animated adaptations of classic children’s books to rags-to-riches tales of the faraway, past century would do just that. The Grand Budapest Hotel, in fact, became his first movie to surpass The Royal Tenenbaums at the box office in addition to nine Oscar nominations. Yet, The Darjeeling Limited, as his last movie to take place in anything like the present, feels like his definitive statement on how he sees himself in a world that was once so thirsty to pull him apart. It was pretty weird.