Criterion Critique: The Darjeeling Limited


Over the years, Wes Anderson has been lampooned by everyone from the cast of Saturday Night Live to glib legions of sardonic Youtubers. His fans are seen as “hipsters” that wear Zooey Deschanel dresses, drink organic pale ales in Bushwick, and ride Citi Bikes around Williamsburg while listening to Chuck Klosterman eBooks. While some v-neck wearing dudes with J. Tillman beards probably love to recite “Rushmore” dialogue to a girl at a fair trade coffee shop, who bears a passing resemblance to Trieste Kelly Dunn, not all Anderson fans are extras from HBO’s “Girls”.

I attended a screening for the polarizing director’s 2004 film, “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”, and remember the acerbic and quippy crowd (at least 60% of them went on to become Buzzfeed writers, no doubt). Beanies, complete with the Zissou team logo, were handed out to everyone in line. Dudes were strutting around in these skullcaps as if they were Jack Huston during a GQ shoot. Inside, the audience was ready for deliberately stilted line-readings and deadpan physical humor. And in turn, Bill Murray delivered the goods. Willem Dafoe delivered the goods. And some endearing sentimentality delivered the goods. All with Amazon Prime speed.

As the years went by, Anderson’s style of pastel-colored whimsy became more accessible. The auteur with the construction paper compass even directed an American Express commercial. And then, in 2007, came “The Darjeeling Limited”: a film about family, emotional discord, and a train. The promotional materials went from skullies to tea bags, and groups of anticipatory theatergoers waned. In the opening minutes of the film, Jason Schwartzman appeared, donning his best Robert Goulet mustache, and parked his sheepish grin next to a glowing Natalie Portman. The two played daring games of provocation, all to the sound of Peter Sarstedt (it couldn’t have been anyone else).

“The Darjeeling Limited” employed all of the director’s best loved tricks – wonky dialogue, theatrical zoom-ins, overcast platitudes – to present a world of snarky endearment. As a person who loved Anderson’s films, this particular movie, set within the constricting confines of a train, bore at my patience as the film chugged along. Adrien Brody seemed unable to grasp Anderson’s humorous – and deliberately impassive – dialogue. He seemed lost in this peculiar universe: it was his “Pleasantville”. Meanwhile, Owen Wilson, a doyan and co-author of Anderson’s style, looked bored by the material – he appeared to have grown tired of the same old idiosyncratic tics. Because the film is largely stuck in contained corridors, our director’s crayon box, subsequently, also feels contained – there is little room to draw elaborate or even cursory lines. Even still, the screenplay can be beautifully hilarious: “Do you want to read a short story I wrote in France?” Jason Schwartzman’s character inquires. “How long is it?” Owen Wilson responds, curtly.

I’ve seen Anderson’s film at least four times now, each sitting to varying degrees of disappointment. Is the Houston-born director being too adroitly cute for his own good? Is the cast unable to process the script? Is everyone too self-aware of their own waggish cleverness? This is a picture that appears crooked, no matter how many times you step back. The vogue ire for Anderson is undeserved, even if this film, and succeeding ones in his oeuvre, have been, essentially, derivative of one another. Though I’m not a fan of this particular opus, Criterion understands the importance of Anderson’s aesthetic watermarks, and so I don’t disagree with them for emblazoning their crest on this movie. On an unrelated note, though “Hotel Chevalier” and the ensuing “The Darjeeling Limited” were made almost ten years ago, it’s more jarring to see an iPod classic in 2016 than it is to see, say, a rotary phone. The world we live in, am I right?


Author: Rob Patrick

The program director of the Olympia Film Society, Rob is also a former San Diego Film Critics Society member. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. When he isn't curating a film festival, he is drinking rosé out of a plastic cup in Seattle or getting tattoos from Jenn Champion.

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