Wes Anderson is a man who makes movies that look like Wes Anderson made them. People who've never studied a lick of film theory can identify his directorial footprint by looking at the composition of a single frame, seeing the sad-sack main character meticulously placed at middle distance from the camera in the very center of the screen, gentle sight gags to the left and right, and imagining a '60s pop song playing in the background.
Of course, all his movies are lovely in their way, and he has yet to make a bad one, but after his first four movies all looked like Wes Anderson made them, it's understandable that critics and fans alike began to wish he could make something else, something less hermetically trapped within his own head. He has tried varying his co-writers: on The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, he swapped the genial sensibility of Owen Wilson, co-writer of the first three, for the uncomfortable misanthropy of Noah Baumbach, and the movie suffered. On Darjeeling Limited, he brought in a different actor as co-writer, Sophia Coppola's cousin Jason Schwartzman, and succeeded. He made a movie that looks like Sofia Coppola co-directed it. He's still trapped inside the head of a neurotically meticulous director, but this time he's got company.
Darjeeling Limited is a post-Gen X road movie. That aspect of the movie is summed up perfectly in an Owen Wilson line in the trailer: "Well, originally, I guess we came here on a spiritual journey. But that didn't really pan out." Schwartzman, Wilson, and Adrien Brody play the Whitman brothers, who have traveled to India to try to rediscover their fraternal bond. When the brothers are off the train and in the countryside, the movie becomes Lost in Translation in India, complete with an opening Bill Murray cab chase sequence as Murray tries to catch the departing train. The treatment of Indians in the film is much like the treatment of Japanese in Lost in Translation: their speech is untranslated, their cultural mores presented through the bemused and uncomprehending eyes of the Whitman brothers, not mean-spirited but utterly foreign.
It's not a movie about India so much as a movie about disaffected Americans drawn to India because it's so different from the society they flunked out of. It's only an hour and a half long, mercifully short for a modern film, and its modest length plays to its advantage. It doesn't have time to be cloying or overly precious. Like all Anderson's movies, it doesn't have many belly laughs, but it's hard not to smile; it's much more humane and less cutting than Zissou.
In the mood-comedy-drama sphere, Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola have been swimming in the same pond for almost a decade now. Anderson gave Coppola's cousin Jason Schwartzman his break as an actor, the lead role in Rushmore, and then Coppola cast Schwartzman in Marie Antoinette; similarly, Coppola cast Bill Murray in Lost in Translation to play a character similar to the one Murray played in Rushmore. Roman Coppola, co-writer of Darjeeling Limited with Anderson and Schwartzman (also his cousin), was assistant director on all Sofia's movies as well as on Zissou.
Anderson and Wilson share a similar cinematic sensibility, from the signature pop soundtracks (though Coppola tends to use '80s post-punk, while Anderson favors '60s British rock) to the wry half-laugh tone of the script to the straight deliveries of the actors against a comically stylized tableau. Perhaps Coppola and Anderson just grew into their 30s together, or maybe they realized after watching each other's movies that they wanted to share the same stars and crew.
Either way, they're twin voices of a new lost generation, the suddenly grown-up former eternal twentysomethings, the kids who survived both Kurt Cobain and Friends and are comically depressed, or bleakly amused, in their own struggle to cope with normal lives and normal dysfunction in a corporate suit world that doesn't see them as young any more. Even when Coppola made a costume drama about the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette, it was self-consciously modern, a biopic of a disaffected hedonist who pigs out to a Bow Wow Wow soundtrack and speaks in today's English.
But while the movies they make are good, they are also incredibly similar to one another, and in another 10 years the two will stop being young and start being middle-aged. Like Sarah Silverman, they're running out of time to be hip, and they should start giving a thought to learning how to do something else. And I'd give them the same advice I gave Sarah -- they should try their hand at action or horror.
I'm going to keep seeing their movies till they make a bad one, which hasn't happened yet, but if they want to stay relevant beyond this decade, they'll need to branch out of the light comedy/comedy-drama genre they've defined so well. Here's a thought: what if Wes Anderson co-wrote his next movie with Quentin Tarantino, or if Sophia Coppola's next movie was about Jack Ryan trying to beat the Russians?
They might have a blockbuster on their hands. And if either of those ideas takes hold, I'll be happy to accept a story credit.