For the last year and a half or so I’ve been lucky enough to be on the list of official reviewers for The Criterion Collection’s forthcoming releases, and this has meant that I have gotten a number of films titles that I already knew were great, having seen them in earlier, inferior, video editions, or in the theaters. I have also received titles that I suspected were great, due to the reputation of the work or its director. But, I have also gotten a batch of unrequested films thrown in to the mix, I figure, as a way for me to publicize releases that no one else really wants to review.
A perfect example of this accompanied the recent DVD release of Stanley Kubrick’s masterful 1957 war film, Paths Of Glory. Having seen it many times, I knew it was great cinema, and the edition I reviewed was a significantly better print than any other DVD version released, had good extra features, and a great audio commentary. Along with that great DVD I also received Anderson’s latest film, The Darjeeling Limited, released a few weeks ago.
Naturally, I sighed a bit, but, since Criterion has been good enough to brighten my world with some wonderful films, I sucked it up and popped in both disks of the set. This is not to say that Anderson, who seems to have struck a career deal with Criterion to release the DVD versions of all his films, is the worst director whose DVDs the company’s ever released, nor is this latest film in a league with the laughable Armageddon that the Criterion bewilderingly has in its catalog.
The truth is I simply fail to see how such an immature and undeveloped artist, who churns out such slight films, measures up to the Criterion claim of dealing in good and/or historically significant films. Surely no one at Criterion really believes that Anderson’s films will have a wide audience in 2060, do they? After all, he is a more vapid Todd Solondz, less ambitious Darren Aronofsky, and more self-consciously quirky Paul Thomas Anderson, right? But, on the plus side, he’s also a less convoluted Charlie Kaufman.
The basic problem I have with all of Anderson’s work is that there is not a scintilla of growth displayed in any of them. Yet somehow, he seems to get the financing to produce his films, all of which play out as mildly humorous television comedy skits strung together, with the claim of ‘mildly humorous’ being applicable to about a third of the films’ ‘episodes.’
Typical of this filmic DNA is the fact that the film proper is preceded by a 12 minute short film, Hotel Chevalier, involving the character Jack Whitman (Jason Schwartzman), a failed short story writer and rich bon vivant, visited in his posh Parisian hotel room by his former lover, an unnamed woman played by Natalie Portman. Basically, the whole setup is a throwaway that has the barest passing reference to the film proper, but does have the added benefit of having the lovely Miss Portman strip down nude for a sexual encounter with Jack, who, curiously, remains Puritanically clothed.
Simply put, there is no reason for the short film, which does not stand alone, narratively, symbolically, metaphorically, nor even comically. Not that I’m complaining about having the nude Portman’s assets on display, but once they are revealed, the short film ends with the couple in awe of the Parisian evening. In the commentary for the short film, provided by director Anderson, he claims that the film somehow reveals depths to the character of Jack Whitman that will bear fruit in the main film. Here is where the critic must sigh, ‘Alas, tis not so!’
The short’s events play only a minor role in the 90-minute main film, although, in the commentary for both Hotel Chevalier and The Darjeeling Limited, the director tries to impute some deeper connection. The main film is clearly trying to evoke the mood of the old Hope-Crosby Road films and fails at that. Not that it’s a bad film; it’s not. It’s just mediocre.
There are a few genuinely funny moments, but the characters are paper thin, and depth is supposed to be seen in odd moments such as the aborted rescue of an expensive car from a fancy German auto repair shop, and a visit taken by the three idle rich Whitman brothers – Jack, Peter (Adrien Brody), and Francis (Owen Wilson) during their Indian excursion, to visit their hedonist-cum-nun mother, Patricia (Anjelica Huston) in the foothills of the Himalayas.
The first half of the film follows the idiotic brothers, one-dimensional caricatures whose self conscious ‘quirkiness’ is their (and the film’s) raison d’etre on their ‘quest’ for spirituality; something Francis arranges after an automobile accident leaves him bandaged throughout most of the film. The brothers have many quirks ostensibly made to endear them to viewers, but which have the opposite effect. Jack writes short stories based upon his life but denies they are based on real events; Peter frets and worries over his pregnant wife, Alice (Camilla Rutherford), who is not on the trip; and Francis obsessively tries to plan everything to the last detail (a trait we later learn his mother shares). He takes along his personal valet, Brendan (Wallace Wolodarsky), who suffers from alopecia (hair loss), for which he is made the object of derision until he resigns, leaving the brothers up the proverbial fecal creek.
The brothers bring, and then lose, a poisonous snake on board; Jack bangs Rita (Amara Karan), the stewardess girlfriend of the head porter (Waris Ahluwalia) who eventually kicks them off the train for their assorted mischief. Although, why this beautiful young girl would be attracted to Jack is a mystery. . .and, well, that’s about the depth of the narrative.
After being kicked off the train the film tries to get ‘deep’ by having the brothers try to save three children whose raft flips over in a river. One dies, they mourn, and the film then continues its pointless journey on to meet their soulless yet spiritual mother, who abandons them, forcing them to rush back on to another train at film’s end, dropping their ‘baggage’ literally and figuratively, in a symbolic moment that is as unsatisfying as it is obvious. This is where Jack unveils his latest short story, which is a recounting of his sexual encounter with the Natalie Portman character in Hotel Chevalier.
The film uses a good deal of stunt casting; Huston’s role has no significance, nor does Portman’s (seen again in a brief and pointless montage of the sort that Anderson finds thrilling). Anderson mainstay Bill Murray, appears as a businessman Peter outruns in the film’s opening to catch the Darjeeling Limited.
Why Murray was needed, save for the ‘Ah, that’s Bill Murray in another Wes Anderson’ moment, is something only Anderson is privy to. The final wasted talent is that of German actor and director Barbet Schroeder as the mechanic in the German auto shop.
Acting is never a strength of Anderson films because the characters are all throwaways, and the screenplay, by Anderson, Schwartzman, and Roman Coppola, is just not that good. Anderson simply has to get out of the solipsism that infests his work, but like Charlie Kaufman, Tim Burton, and Quentin Tarantino, he seems to be one of those filmmakers impervious to personal and artistic development and growth.
Robert Yeoman’s cinematography, in a 2.4:1 aspect ratio, is as anomic and anonymous as the film’s narrative is slavishly Andersonian, and, as usual in Anderson films, the worst element is the atrocious film score: a mix of quirky pop songs and theme music culled from other films set in India- claimed to be, in a DVD supplement with director James Ivory, mostly from his and Satyajit Ray’s films. Naturally, the film and musical application falls far short of either director’s works, and for this both Anderson and musical supervisor Randall Poster must be blamed, for music that has a dramatic feel is often applied to quirky scenes, and frivolous music is laid over scenes that seem to convey ‘deeper’ things.
The DVD has some solid features. The two films, along with the original theatrical trailer, are on Disc One, with commentaries for both. As mentioned above, the short film’s commentary is just a justification for the film’s pointlessness, while the commentary for the main film features Anderson, Schwartzman, and Coppola, the film’s screenwriters. Of the three, Coppola is the standout. First, he’s the only one with a voice that does not make you want to pull your hair out, and secondly, he’s the only one who seemingly recalls major details of the film’s making. Also, his knowledge on film history and technical aspects far surpasses that Anderson demonstrates. Perhaps the only really good thing about watching and reviewing this DVD is how it made me wish Coppola, who wrote and directed the underrated but good sci fi spoof, CQ, in 2001 was more involved in this one. It’s little wonder that this film’s best moments turn out to have been those penned by Coppola. Any comments by the other two really add nothing to the knowledge or appreciation of the film, and Schwartzman, especially seems an utter cipher.
As for extra features, those are on Disc Two. As mentioned is a segment with James Ivory, interviewed by Anderson, and discussing the musical influences on this film. Especially good are the clips from the Ivory and Ray films shown. There are random behind the scenes clips which are called a documentary, but have no cohesion. There are audtions, deleted and alternate scenes, and an American Express commercial that Anderson stars in and directed. There are also a few other little pointless features with only the most tangential connection to the film. An insert essay by film critic Richard Brody is as anomic as the film it is about. Overall, not a good extras package, but not bad. It is at about the level the film is- take that as you will.
The Darjeeling Limited is not a bad film, and nowhere near one of the all time worst films. But, in no way, shape, nor form, can anyone who understands and appreciates the art of cinema call this a good, much less great film, and those who have praised it or claimed it was one of the best films of its year are idiots, pure and simple.
It is, in a sense, the sine qua non of mediocrity, and Anderson is the same thing in the realm of directors, which only begs the question as to what The Criterion Collection finds so valuable about his cinematic canon. More than that, I get the real sense, given Anderson’s comments on the audio commentary track, and in the extra features, that he is not even trying to grow and make films of substance and quality any longer. And this is a shame, because Rushmore, the first film of his to break big, was a good film, and one which showed potential for Anderson to become a valuable asset for American cinema. In fact, only David Gordon Green’s debut film, George Washington, showed more potential for a young American filmmaker, in the last dozen years, yet he too has stagnated, although his problem is more based in mere selling out to Hollywood and its conventions, whereas Anderson seems to be just creatively dead.
Given his working and personal relationship with Roman Coppola, who’s proven he’s a good screenwriter, it would seem that Coppola would be the person to turn to for his next film’s screenplay; to get outside of Andersonworld. If not, he may be doomed to becoming his generation’s Tim Burton; a thought even scarier than any of that perpetual juvenile’s own films.