Give Wes Anderson credit for hygiene: The deeper he crawls up his own ass, the cleaner his movies become. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was the apex of his prettified petulance (as well as the closest I've ever came to walking out of a theater), so it's a relief (conceptually, at least) to see him wander the wide spaces of India in The Darjeeling Limited. Alas, you can take a pipsqueak out of the cocoon but you can't take the cocoon out of the pipsqueak, and foreign culture is just a pop-up scrim in Anderson's latest fable, a collective colorful bead for his self-fondling mopers to wear around their necks -- Pagoda was the cute, ethnic pet in The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson envisions a whole nation of them here. The story follows a trio of alienated New York brothers on a "spiritual journey" across India aboard the titular train. Owen Wilson is the eldest of the three, a businessman whose motorcycle spill has left him messily bandaged yet clarified about bringing the family together; Adrian Brody is on the run from impending fatherhood while Jason Schwartzman broods about the new book he's writing and a fling he experienced in France. Whole lotta healin' going on -- they take swigs from a medicine bottle and buy souvenir-cobras in bazaars, always lugging a mountain of suitcases that used to belong to their dead father. Their hunger for transcendence goes nowhere until they attend a funeral in a rural village, where the local ceremonies Anderson has so far offered for condescending goofiness are expected to be profound because they're shot in slow-mo. With a Kinks song.
This is the ungiving, benign neo-colonialism that Albert Brooks mocked (and was inescapably a part of) in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. Anderson's characters are too wrapped in their hipster bubbles to realize what douche bags they are, and the director is too beguiled by their (meaning his, of course) eccentricity to risk exposing them: The creepy pathos of the funeral sequence flows from the way Anderson unquestioningly shares the brothers' view of the death of an Indian boy as little more than a launching pad for a flashback to their own brush with loss back in America. Still, the cut from the village to the trio in the back of a car is the first time I've felt anything in an Anderson film since Bottle Rocket. The same applies to Anderson's companion piece Hotel Chevalier, a mini-beauty that has Schwartzman and Natalie Portman exchanging obliquely tangled emotion in a plush room and is, in a word, pianissimo. Such moments make me take stock of what, in homage to one of my favorite pieces of film writing this year, I call "My Anderson Problem." Undeniably gifted, he decorates his frames with miniaturist gimcracks (yellow bathrobes, turquoise turbans, a red cab) that clot into merciless whimsy; the melancholy is mostly notional and entirely unearned, bought ready-made in '60s songs. And yet, and yet... When Anjelica Huston appears towards the end of The Darjeeling Limited as the brothers' runaway mother and accuses them of selfishness, I hope Anderson is listening. And I hope that his next film will offer more useful advancements than "ironically" maladroit zooms, and less widescreen views of naïfs staring at the camera, taunting me to conk their heads together.
James Gray is another talented filmmaker who could really use a vacation from his distinctive style. Scarcely less than ambitious, he's always wanted to be great before he was even good: The most striking thing about Little Odessa, his 1994 debut, was its grim determination to be a classical masterwork of crime and family, and, just to be on the safe side, he's made sure to have at least one actor from The Godfather in his pictures since. James Caan glared over the relationship between Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg in The Yards, it's now Robert Duvall's turn in We Own the Night. Phoenix plays a hot-shit manager running a Brooklyn nightclub named "El Caribe" in 1988, Wahlberg is his glum cop brother, Duvall is their father, a decorated police chief with jowls full of macho koans (Sample: "You piss in your pants, you can only stay warm for so long"); an avuncular Russian narcotics trafficker runs his business out of Phoenix's place, so it is purely a matter of time before the "out of control" protagonist has to choose between father-figures. Gray's world is a dour maelstrom of vendettas and wavering loyalty, although We Own the Night opens voluptuously, with Phoenix finger-banging Eva Mendes to the thump-thump of Blondie, and a pale flame is kept burning throughout, low but intense, ready to flare up for a punchy set-piece (including a rain-drenched car chase that's stronger than anything in The Bourne Ultimatum). Like Anderson, however, Gray assumes rather than dramatizes the depths of his characters, scanning for gravitas where there are only rickety clichés. Faced with muted opera, the mind wanders: When did Wahlberg turn into such a humorless blank? Was that a hologram of Ed Koch in the hospital? And precisely when did the late-Eighties become "period"?
30 Days of Night is erected on an authentically horrifying premise, with Josh Hartnett falling to pieces while enduring interminable weeks of celibacy, and... No, hold on, I'm thinking of 40 Days and 40 Nights. 30 Days of Night has Hartnett fighting vampires from some comic-book, and boy is it lame. The gag is that an Alaska burg with a month-long dusk is like a vacation resort to bloodsuckers, who slaughter in the streets while a batch of survivors (including Hartnett, Melissa George, and Mark Boone Junior) remains barricaded, waiting for the sunrise. "That cold ain't the weather... That's death approaching," hollers Ben Foster, who, following 3:10 to Yuma with even more hammy whimpering here, appears to be morphing into Brad Dourif before our very eyes. The vampires, meanwhile, are led by Danny Huston, sporting a Prussian colonel look to go with his rasping, subtitled lines (apparently ghost-written by Michael Haneke -- "There's no escape, only hunger and pain"). It's all quite tedious, mainly because director David Slade appears bent on telegraphing the shocks (a factory grinder, you say?) while fumbling the visual possibilities of mixing blood, snow, and darkness (this ain't no Thing, that's for sure). These 30 Days feel like an eternity, and, to quote Christopher Walken in Ferrara's immeasurably greater vampire freakout The Addiction, "eternity's a long time. Get used to it."
Reviewed October 27, 2007.