As a practice, film criticism tends to imply objectivity gleaned from exposure to lots and lots of movies. But, the truth is that some filmmakers just hit you where you live. As a kid, about the only thing I obsessed over more than my baseball-card collection was the comic strip Bloom County, and filmmaker Wes Anderson's best work reflects the sensibility of that strip like nothing else. The combination of near-utopian, intergenerational (if not interspecies) generosity, wry humor, and cultural obsessiveness that fuels Anderson's work reminds me not only of the strip itself, but also of the experience of being a kid reading it.
And even though many of Anderson's characters seem to come from old-money families that allow for leisure time and the accumulation of fascinating possessions without doing any apparent work, Anderson's films also court my class-consciousness.
What is often missed about Anderson's enthusiasm for the cultural touchstones of an upper-crust, über-educated upbringing — and what his best film, Rushmore, makes totally explicit — is how much the fascination is rooted in an outsider's longing and romanticism: that of Rushmore's Max Fischer, the precocious barber's son, rising above his cultural station in pursuit of artistic and educational stimulation.
I feel so much affection for Anderson's work generally — in large part for the affection his films generate — that I'm prone to give his considerable quirks plenty of leeway. But, even then, I didn't much like his last film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
Anderson's new film, The Darjeeling Limited, is a rebound — albeit a slight one. Stylistically, it's his most rambling, spontaneous-feeling work since his feature debut, Bottle Rocket, while, thematically and emotionally, it comes across as a companion piece to his family drama The Royal Tenenbaums. It's a tale of three brothers — Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) Whitman — who embark on a train trip through India shortly after the death of their father. All three brothers are dealing with their own personal crises: Francis is wearing bandages around his head, the provenance of which is gradually revealed; Peter is struggling with conflicted feelings about his impending fatherhood; and Jack is dealing with a recent romantic dissolution. That the key prop in this scenario is the lavishly designed hand-me-down "baggage" the brothers share on the trip is indicative that Anderson's symbolism is more than a little heavy-handed this time out.
If you think this basic set-up — the balancing of siblings' personal and interpersonal problems with shared issues over their late father — suggests an unresolved coda to The Royal Tenenbaums, just wait until the mother pops up.
But if this is a rehash, it's one that mostly works. The titular train that serves as the setting for much of the early part of the film — a rickety old locomotive with shabby but colorful cars — is a great Anderson location, though its meticulously designed bric-a-brac doesn't carry as much character information or have as much emotional resonance as the spaces in his other films. And Brody makes a fitting new addition to the Anderson company, the director making great use of Brody's long-limbed physicality, whether he's rushing to catch the train or making a yoga-esque bid for mountaintop enlightenment.
The Darjeeling Limited
Opening Friday, October 26th
Malco Cordova and Studio on the Square