The cracks in the scaffolding began to show in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a film which I liked but which gave many critics acute déjà vu. There was no doubt that some of Anderson’s hallmarks had started to work against him, specifically his insistence on giving his characters costumes: in case Bill Murray’s perennially droopy mug didn’t convey it enough, we could be sure that his Zissou is a sad bastard because of his sagging, Cousteau-style red hat.
This type of crude emotional semaphore is even more blatant in Darjeeling. Here, yet again, we have a well-dressed family of upper-middle class, vaguely literary types. Francis, Peter, and Jack Whitman have all convened on the title train to commence a “spiritual journey” a year after their father died and they separated in grief. Francis (Owen Wilson) is the de facto leader, printing out laminated itinerary cards identifying all the holy spots they’re going to visit. Oh, and in case you’re wondering if Francis is at all emotionally damaged, Anderson has conveniently packaged his face in a mummy-like helmet of bandages and gauze. Peter (Adrien Brody) is anxious about his impending fatherhood. But don’t fear, because in the third act he attempts to save an Indian boy’s life and the metaphor for his maturity is so blunt that you’re likely to feel violated. And then there’s Jack (Jason Schwartzman), who we know has recently ended a serious relationship because he carries around his hyper-autobiographical short stories and reads them aloud.
The Whitmans’ disaffected, narcotized malaise will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Anderson’s previous films, but in the event you’re still unclear as to whether or not these men have emotional baggage, the filmmakers have taken the care of outfitting the brothers with actual baggage in the form of their dead father’s customized Louis Vuitton suitcases. Do they eventually shed their emotional baggage by film’s end? I won’t give anything away, but in the final scenes they happily toss aside their real bags while running to catch a train. In slow motion. To the Kinks. In Rushmore, Anderson’s antiquated soundtracks and camera tricks felt like refreshing nods to Truffaut or even Scorcese. A decade later, they just feel like nods to Rushmore.
Darjeeling, like all of Anderson’s films, is entirely pleasant to watch, and so it’s easy to overlook how truly insulting its thematic browbeating really is. For a while Darjeeling appears to be a clever spoof on rich Americans “finding themselves” in the third world while still requiring the comforts of their real lives. But once the brother get off the train and start exploring India by foot, they are profoundly, deeply changed (we know this because the Kinks play) by the death of a small boy. Every emotion in Anderson’s world is expressed through shorthand – a death means things are Serious; a buttoned-up protagonist getting flustered means Funny; whenever we hear pop music we know someone’s experiencing a catharsis. And above all, we know that these characters are real because their problems originate with their family. And everyone’s got a family, right?
This is cheap and boring. It is McArt-House moviemaking, in which all elements of culture and taste are spoon fed to us. It’s also unfortunate because Anderson is so obviously a talented filmmaker. If he showed even the slightest inclination towards thematic or visual change, then his signature flourishes would seem less like crutches than they do here. Instead, all the familiar Andersonian elements pop up in cameos, as if the audience were watching with checklists. There’s Bill Murray! There’s Mr. Littlejeans! The same damn font he’s used for all his credits!
Almost all of Anderson’s movies pick up when his characters are bottomed out, well past their prime in whatever field they practice. At this point they can slowly build themselves up again by realizing that true happiness isn’t in tennis or making nature documentaries or writing plays, but rather in the simple act of connecting with their loved ones. If we accept this as true, Wes Anderson’s family should be expecting phone calls any day now.