How Wes Anderson mishandles race.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Sept. 27 2007 7:25 AM

Unbearable Whiteness

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

Wes Anderson. Click image to expand.
Wes Anderson

The first time Owen Wilson met Wes Anderson, at a college playwriting class in Austin, the future director made an immediate impression. "He walked in wearing L.L. Bean duck-hunting boots and shorts," Wilson recalled, "Which I thought was kind of obnoxious."

In every film he's made, even the best ones, there's been something kind of obnoxious about Wes Anderson. By now, critics have enumerated several of his more irritating traits and shticks: There's his pervasive preciousness, exemplified by the way he pins actors into the centers of fastidiously composed tableaux like so many dead butterflies. There's his slump-shouldered parade of heroes who seem capable of just two emotions: dolorous and more dolorous (not that there haven't been vibrant exceptions to this). And there's the way he frequently couples songs—particularly rock songs recorded by shaggy Europeans between 1964 and 1972—with slow-motion effects, as though he's sweeping a giant highlighter across the emotional content of a scene. In The Royal Tenenbaums, Richie can't watch Margot get off a bus without Nico popping up to poke us in the ribs: "He loves her! And it's killing him! See?"

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The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson's latest movie, showcases an obnoxious element of Anderson that is rarely discussed: the clumsy, discomfiting way he stages interactions between white protagonists—typically upper-class elites—and nonwhite foils—typically working class and poor. The plot concerns three brothers, Francis, Peter, and Jack Whitman (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman) who set out on a "spiritual journey" across India by rail. Brody and Schwartzman stalk the film somberly, their eyes glazed with melancholy, their laconic exchanges one part deadpan, one part night of the living dead. They are zombies in fitted blazers, suffering quietly but profoundly from the same vague, paralyzing, leisure-class malaise that has plagued Anderson's heroes ever since Luke Wilson checked himself into a mental hospital for "exhaustion" in Bottle Rocket. Owen Wilson (despite his recent personal ordeal) is the trio's winningly dopey optimist, convinced that the Indian sojourn is exactly what the brothers need to get closer together—they haven't spoken since the death of their father, one year earlier. The film is gorgeous to look at: The color palette is riotous, and Anderson's rapacious eye for bric-a-brac binges on the Hindu prayer altars and crowded street markets of Rajasthan. But needless to say, beware of any film in which an entire race and culture is turned into therapeutic scenery.

From the Beatles' 1968 hang with the Maharishi to the recent "Imagine India" flower show at Macy's, South Asia has long been a hotspot in the American and European orientalist imagination. But for a director as willfully idiosyncratic as Anderson, it's surprising how many white-doofuses-seeking-redemption-in-the-brown-skinned-world clichés Darjeeling Limited inhabits. Early on, Adrien Brody ascends through the various classes of the film's titular train, leaving behind the goats and peasants of the luggage car and the drab denizens of coach before arriving at the private sleeper Francis has reserved for the trip: This spiritual journey comes equipped with a locking door and private bathroom, thank you. A comely stewardess named Rita soon enters, draws a bindi on each brother's forehead, and offers up "sweet lime and savory snacks." Jack decides to interpret this liberally and shortly makes love to her in the bathroom. Rita isn't a character so much as a familiar type: the mysterious, exotic, dark-skinned beauty. Jack hardly exchanges a word with her, but, reeling from a bad breakup, he begins pestering her to leave her Sikh boyfriend, convinced for no good reason that she can turn his life around.

Sometimes Wes Anderson winks at the brothers' fetishistic attitudes toward India, but he eventually reveals his own. When Francis grandly declares, "I love these people"—minutes after a shoeshine boy has run off with one of his "$3,000 loafers"—or when Peter says, "I love how this country smells; it's … spicy," Anderson must be chuckling at them. But he runs into trouble when he tries to stage their genuine awakening. The plot contrives to get the brothers kicked out of the Darjeeling, where Francis' personal assistant has been drawing up laminated daily timetables, and out into the countryside, where they might enjoy the sort of unmediated revelation you just can't plan with TripAdvisor.

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