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.

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.

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.

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.