The Darjeeling Limited
Dir. Wes Anderson
Premiered at Venice September 3, 2007
On a rainy day in the fall of 1998, my mom and I were stuck at an automotive repair shop in Alhambra, watching Charlie Rose on an ancient RCA with bad reception. Rose was interviewing Bill Murray, who I only knew at the time from Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day. Here, though, he was promoting a much darker film called Rushmore. I knew from the clip they showed that my mom wouldn’t take me to see it, but I was equally shocked by Murray’s appearance. His hair was white, and he had a smarmy mustache. I’d never seen him play a dirtbag before, and was intrigued.
For a long time, Wes Anderson’s movies were praised to high heaven while Anderson himself largely went unnoticed. In the summer of 2005, now aged fifteen, a neighbor recommended I watch Rushmore. I did, and loved it, and went online to see what else the director had done. I was flabbergasted. “The Royal Tenenbaums?” I thought. “The Life Aquatic? He made all of these?” As far as I can tell, everybody else seems to have discovered Wes Anderson at the same moment I did, because when school started again, I would often find my classmates talking about him. And just as soon as everybody knew the name Wes Anderson, he became a joke.
That everybody suddenly woke up and realized who Wes Anderson was in 2005 makes a lot of sense, as Anderson himself was on the cutting edge of a whole new aesthetic, twee, that was just gaining traction around that time. The shock of 9/11 had finally worn off, and the decadent, tailored faux-squalor of the 2000s left many young people subconsciously seeking out an alternative, the kind of dignified, nostalgic, ambiguous anytime in which Anderson’s films seemed to take place. This made Anderson very easy to make fun of; his persistent tropes and trademarks are too numerous to name here, but they’re very easy to identify. At the same time, Anderson’s directorial style began filtering into the mainstream and mixing with those of other indie filmmakers to usher in a new brand of preciousness, and an inevitable backlash. It was into this environment that The Darjeeling Limited was released.
Though I can’t prove it, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if Anderson made The Darjeeling Limited as a counterpoint to all that. Developed and shot in under a year on a relative shoestring budget while his main project Fantastic Mr. Fox ran behind schedule, The Darjeeling Limited follows three wealthy ne’er-do-well brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman), avoiding real life until eldest Francis (Wilson), following a failed suicide attempt, invites them on a train trip across India. Ostensibly, the self-appointed patriarch has brought them together to broaden their horizons and find inner peace, but really he’s looking for their mother (Anjelica Houston), who’s been missing since the death of their father a year earlier.
If that makes the film sound plot-heavy, it’s not. For the most part, the brothers struggle with their insecurities and estrangement, all while abusing India’s lax drug laws and alienating everyone they meet– until forced to leave the titular train and find their own way. It’s at this point where the Wes Anderson formula breaks down; the director self-consciously mixes and mashes his stylistic trademarks until the characters and he himself literally let go of their old baggage.
How Did It Do?
The Darjeeling Limited grossed $35 million against a $17.5 million budget, precisely breaking even. The week of this film’s release, Wes Anderson released a short film called “Hotel Chevalier,” which acts as a sort of prequel to the film, to iTunes. Appropriately, it’s not at all necessary to see it in order to enjoy The Darjeeling Limited, but you might get some extra laughs out of it. This minisode format was semi-popular at the time as a little extra for TV shows (most notably Lost and The Office), but Anderson never did it again, and the practice largely died out by the end of the 2000s. Also, in the short, Natalie Portman gets naked. Wes Anderson gets me.
While The Darjeeling Limited is often regarded today as Anderson’s least twee film, it wasn’t received that way at the time. Although it received a solid 69% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, only Anderson’s prior, initially much more alienating The Life Aquatic had received worse reviews. Many positive critiques referred to The Darjeeling Limited as comfortable and inessential, while the bulk of negative responses found it suffocatingly unadventurous and self-indulgent, the product of a man refusing to evolve at any cost.
Very few, even among its boosters, were able to see the direction that it represented: rather than abandon his signature style, Anderson was taking it in a more worldly, less detached direction. Production on the film completed shortly before star Owen Wilson’s real-life suicide attempt; for many, this may have brought an emotional intimacy to the film that would otherwise have been lacking, and which Anderson has continued to make use of in his more recent, even more beloved films Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Somewhere is an alternate universe where Wes Anderson is much the same as M. Night Shyamalan once was, but it isn’t this one. And The Darjeeling Limited certainly has something to do with that.
Next Time: I’m Not There