Superficially, Darjeeling Limited is about family, but really, it’s about whiteness. In fact, it is literally about being a white man, that is, about being a Whitman. Wes Anderson’s latest follows the Whitmans, a family that’s fractured after their father’s funeral, through India. It’s the first time Anderson’s had more than a few non-whites in one of his movies (remember his black-free Harlem in Tenenbaums?), perhaps to set the pale into sharper relief.
How can the Whitmans afford this whimsical journey? We don’t find out; Darjeeling is obscenely casual about its characters’ wealth. But in a movie about whiteness, such trivial finances are beside the point. Emotional landscape is all that matters here, which is why even when they’re all kicked off the train they can still get around so easily. This movie isn’t about privileged people, it’s about privilege itself, and there’s no better way to probe the problems of the privileged heart than to eliminate everything but emotional difficulties. For guys like these, all obstacles are self-imposed.
The lack of a cultural identity has been sending whites to India (at least) since The Beatles, and the movie’s ripe for dealing with the white weakness for otherness. But then, dealing with displacement is difficult in the anal-retentive world of precision that is a Wes Anderson picture, because nothing can be misplaced. It’s all too perfect—when the four brothers scamper down a hillside in a wide angle long shot, it has the self-contained look of a snow globe scene. Cultural co-opting aside, the temples, countryside, and bronzy skin of the natives make for a nifty backdrop for this well-played story about emotionally malfunctioning rich kids, and it plays well inside its snow globe. Darjeeling’s got a lot going for it, and part of its appeal is the rapport between Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman.
The way that Darjeeling Limited winds up with whiteness and wealth as its implied topics is an accident—its perspective isn’t wide enough to see outside its own (very watchable) characters. Still, Darjeeling works. There is no distance between filmmaker and subject, between film and filmed. This isn’t an ego movie; Anderson loves his characters too much to make a movie about himself. There is, however, a charming synthesis between Anderson’s method, his characters’ neuroses, and the feel of the resulting film.
Take Anderson’s protagonist, Francis (Wilson), essentially a guy who’s trying to do something good. He wants to reunite with his brothers, reunite them with their mother, and get them all to recover from the death of their father. He wants to achieve a pure spiritual connection. And he wants his act to be grand, a train trip through India.
Darjeeling Limited is directed by a guy who’s doing the same thing, trying to do something good. He wants to make a movie about redeeming yourself, about recovering from pain, about unconditional love. He wants the emotional center of Darjeeling to be so palpable that he pumps up the volume on a heartbeat near the movie’s middle. And he grabs at grandiosity, achieving it enough not to be grotesque.
Both Anderson and his protagonist are so meticulous, self-conscious, and controlling about their endeavors that they threaten to squeeze the life out of them, but their intentions are too good for anything to get too screwed up. Francis keeps an hour-by-hour bonding itinerary, and Anderson’s movies suffer from overly precise framing and dialogue timing. Anderson and Francis tinker too much for their own good, they’re precious about their possessions and their interests, and they don’t care about the bigger picture. They are both maddeningly obsessed with detail, Francis with an itemized inventory of his deceased father’s estate, Anderson with every detail on the set. It’s fetishistic.
But Francis and Anderson are also very funny, and their meticulousness pays off in many small dividends. Francis’s itineraries are laminated, which is amusing enough, but it’s played for double the laughs when he tries to rip one up.
And they’re good-hearted. The three brothers come to the rescue of some Indian boys in peril, which mission gives Peter (Brody) something to redeem himself for in the future (involving his own son) and brings some of Francis’s goals to fruition, as they all get a chance to redeem themselves for missing their father’s funeral. The maneuver is way too convenient to be effective, and forget about dealing with the troubling white-man-to-the-rescue scenario. Still, as clumsy as some of Darjeeling’s plot turns are, they’re never there out of commitment to narrative, but devotion to empathy. And the gauche big-heartedness of the movie almost makes up for Anderson’s obliviousness about a bigger social and cultural picture. There is a very likeable movie in Darjeeling that beats up on its characters enough to achieve an ease of empathy with them, even if never enough to make the Whitmans seem less than impenetrable to anyone who’s not a rich white man.