How Wes Anderson mishandles race.

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Sept. 27 2007 7:25 AM

Unbearable Whiteness

That queasy feeling you get when watching a Wes Anderson movie.

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This revelation comes soon enough. After a series of pratfalls, the brothers throw up their hands, deciding to go their separate ways. (What follows is no movie-ruining giveaway, but I should insert a spoiler alert, just in case.) As they walk alongside a canal, they see three adolescent Indian brothers attempting to cross it on a raft attached to a system of ropes and pulleys. A pulley snaps, and the boys are flung into the raging currents. Francis, Peter, and Jack dive in—one set of flailing brothers trying to save another—but one of the adolescents is killed. They're invited to the child's rural village for his funeral (which Anderson cannot resist presenting in slow motion and setting to a Kinks song), where the Whitman clan realize that they need to stick together and see out the rest of their journey. Turns out that a dead Indian boy was all the brothers were missing.

This isn't just heavy-handed, it's offensive. In a grisly little bit of developing-world outsourcing, the child does the bothersome work of dying so that the American heroes won't have to die spiritually. There is no wink from Anderson here. He plays the whole funeral sequence for pathos. Later on, in a celebratory moment, we get a classically offbeat Anderson image. The three brothers squeeze together onto a moped and ride, liberated, in some gorgeous late-day sunlight. The camera slowly zooms out to reveal a cartload of Indian porters behind them, carrying the brothers' considerable baggage (nudge-nudge). Any implied critique seems unintentional, though. Anderson's just doubling the sight gag.

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Although the issue of race has never been as prominent as in Darjeeling Limited, it's cropped up continuously in Anderson's films. In Bottle Rocket, the Paraguayan housekeeper Ines is a direct precursor to Rita—a service-industry hottie with whom a depressed Anderson hero (in this case, Luke Wilson's Anthony) becomes obsessed. Helping this obsession along is the fact that Ines can barely speak English, making her a convenient projecting screen for Anthony's fantasies about purity and true love. Their romance is sweet, but its subtext is laughable. Anthony's last girlfriend sent him into a psychological tailspin, we learn, when she made a bourgeois proposal: "Over at Elizabeth's beach house, she asked me if I'd rather go water-skiing or lay out. And I realized that not only did I not want to answer that question," Anthony explains, "but I never wanted to answer another water-sports question, or see any of these people again for the rest of my life." So it's barefoot, towel-folding Ines to the emotional rescue.

Anderson generally likes to decorate his margins with nonwhite, virtually mute characters: Pelé in Life Aquatic, a Brazilian who sits in a crow's-nest and sings David Bowie songs in Portuguese; Mr. Sherman in Royal Tenenbaums, a black accountant who wears bow ties, falls into holes, and meekly endures Gene Hackman's racist jabs—he calls him "Coltrane" and "old black buck," which Anderson plays for laughs; Mr. Littlejeans in Rushmore, the Indian groundskeeper who occasionally mumbles comical malapropisms (Anderson hired this actor, Kumar Pallana, to do the same in Royal Tenenbaums and Bottle Rocket). There's also Margaret Yang, Apple Jack, Ogata, and Vikram. Taken together, they form a fleet of quasi-caricatures and walking punch lines, meant to import a whimsical, ambient multiculturalism into the films. Anderson frequently points out his white characters' racial insensitivities ("Which part of Mexico are you from?" Wilson asks Ines in Bottle Rocket. She shakes her head. "Paraguay." "Oh, Paraguay … that's over … under … Guatemala. …"), but he presents them, ultimately, as endearing quirks.

Like his peers Zach Braff, Noah Baumbach (who directed the excellent Squid and the Whale and co-wrote Life Aquatic), and Sofia Coppola (whose brother Roman helped write Darjeeling Limited), Wes Anderson situates his art squarely in a world of whiteness: privileged, bookish, prudish, woebegone, tennis-playing, Kinks-scored, fusty. He's wise enough to make fun of it here and there, but in the end, there's something enamored and uncritical about his attitude toward the gaffes, crises, prejudices, and insularities of those he portrays. In The Darjeeling Limited, he burrows even further into this world, even (especially?) as the story line promises an exotic escape. Hands down, it's his most obnoxious movie yet.

Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.

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