The Anderson train runs out of steam.
The story centers on three brothers – Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrian Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) – who have not spoken in over a year since their father’s funeral. When Francis proposes a train voyage across India, Peter and Jack seize the opportunity to run away from their problems: Jack is reeling from a disastrous breakup with his girlfriend (Natalie Portman), while Peter struggles with deep anxiety about impending fatherhood. Little do they realize that Francis is pushing them towards a meeting with their estranged mother (Anjelica Huston), who is herself trying to escape a previous life. The brothers’ journey is fraught with silliness and tragedy, but the film never manages to get over itself enough to come together.
Co-written by Anderson, Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, both film and short film feature the director’s set of trademarks: a kitschy production design, quirky characters, and a precocious 60′s pop soundtrack. The story also includes the by-now-unsurprising coterie of Anderson veterans, including Bill Murray as (presumably) the brothers’ late father. So if audiences liked Anderson’s previous works, they should enjoy this too, right? If only.
Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums succeeded because of the emotional attachment that the films’ characters earned from the audience. In Hotel Chevalier and The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson seems preoccupied with perfecting his signature style and less concerned with making the interpersonal relationships resonate. Of course, Anderson may have intended to forego extensive character development in order to portray the intimate family conflicts as subtly as possible; unfortunately any subtlety is devoured by patronizing symbolism and rigidly stylized costume and set designs.
Perhaps equally frustrating is Anderson’s unwillingness to resolve or even explore dangling plot threads, which in turn are complicated by the almost complete absence of a climax. While most directors entrust plot resolution to the viewer’s individual interpretation, even the most experimental filmmakers seldom cloak their works in funny animals and annoyingly cheerful folk music. And with this film, that evasion of stance is getting annoying. It’s as though Anderson is terrified of getting caught saying Something, and it’s hard to take an insistently whimsical filmmaker seriously.
In a film obsessed with style over substance, the actors themselves ultimately become moving set pieces. Wilson delivers the most engaging performance, his overbearing enthusiasm hiding deep despair. Sure, it’s remarkably similar to Dignan (his charming dolt from Bottle Rocket), but I for one am glad to see the actor return to form after playing a string of one-dimensional buffoons such as in Drillbit Taylor. Brody and Schwartzman are so deadpan that they’re both unmoving and unmemorable. Portman shows up, gets gratuitously naked and disappears, while Huston basically copies Wilson’s performance (only more quietly).
If I seem overly harsh, it’s because the enduring quality of Anderson’s first three films demand that the director be held to a high standard. Even the bloated and disjointed The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou managed to gel, ulimtatley, into a sublime climax. Ironically, Anderson’s better works all feature one constant that The Life Aquatic and Hotel Chevalier/The Darjeeling Limited lack: Owen Wilson as co-writer. Given that Drillbit Taylor recently tanked, it’s becoming obvious at this point in their careers just how much Wilson and Anderson need each other.
- Steve Kabel