Darjeeling Is Limited
There are good movies, bad movies, honorable failures, good movies that indifferent audiences turn into flops and bad movies that smart publicists and ham actors turn into hits with bookings on Jay Leno. I usually welcome them all. But if there is one kind of movie I cannot stand, it’s the pretentious, rotten, incomprehensible stinker: the uber-swill nobody understands that always gets financed by some chowderhead who hopes to attract enough self-deluded critics to fill a quote ad (and usually does). These movies are a disgrace, and the New York Film Festival is currently offering not one, but three. Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, Noah Baumbach’s noxious Margot at the Wedding and Todd Haynes’ sub-mental I’m Not There (talk about title as self-prophecy!) are enough to drive sane moviegoers back to Roy Rogers on Trigger and Sonja Henie on ice skates.
In the dismal Darjeeling Limited, three moronic siblings who haven’t spoken to each other in years (obviously fearing brain damage) set off across India on a train with a never-quite-convincing plan to bond again and find their mother (Anjelica Huston in a gray wig, looking like Judge Roy Bean) who has run away from home to become a nun in the Himalayas. The goopy brothers are played by three actors with mystery careers. Francis (Owen Wilson, a Wes Anderson regular with a voice like a dial tone who never fails to put me to sleep) is bad enough when you have to listen. It’s worse when his ears and head are wrapped in bandages. Bossing the others around, telling them what to eat and making all the rules because he’s the oldest, he insists they must use the experience as a spiritual journey and say yes to everything, which is not much of a task if they said yes to this script. Jack (Jason Schwartzman, nephew of Francis Ford Coppola and star of the ghastly and pretentious I Heart Huckabees, who played a retarded Louis XVI in the laughable Marie Antoinette, which was more or less directed by his cousin Sofia, and unfortunately looks like a slobbering asylum inmate) sleeps with everyone he meets and wanders through the desert barefoot, which is impossible, not to mention illogical. Peter (Adrien Brody) is a hollow-eyed spook who, for no reason, brings a deadly cobra onboard and gets them all thrown off the train in the middle of nowhere with a broken printer, a laminating machine and 11 pieces of antique Vuitton luggage. Bill Murray does a cameo as a man who keeps missing the train. They’re all consumed by Indian music borrowed from the soundtracks of films by Satyajit Ray and horrible pop songs by the Kinks. Nothing ever happens, despite a great deal of pointless flap about that cobra, an endless array of over-the-counter painkillers, Indian cough syrup, pepper spray and the freaked-out mother from hell. When they reach the convent, she tucks them in and disappears from the movie, making Anjelica Huston the luckiest member of the cast.
With more style than substance, the story is so thin it evaporates like a puff from a hookah. It’s really hard to decide which actor is the most obnoxious. The character quirks are never successfully integrated into any kind of narrative. Nobody has a motive for anything. Like Mr. Anderson’s previous duds, The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore, it wants to be a comedy, shaking its butt at every historic concept that word implies and trying to make you care about its off-the-wall characters at the same time. Nothing wrong with that ambition, except that it is never remotely funny and the characters are as transparent as Saran Wrap. Mr. Anderson’s approach to filmmaking is from the same brain-dead school inhabited by Charlie Kaufman screenplays and the head-scratching direction of Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze and David O. Russell: Throw incoherent ingredients in the air, talk all of your Hollywood friends into joining the frolic and let the pieces fall all over the place with the camera turning. They all seem to be making it up as they go along, between visits to the catering truck. Mr. Anderson’s co-writers are Jason Schwartzman and his cousin Roman, who is Sofia Coppola’s brother. It all smacks of incest, and sinks in a puddle of sluggish superficiality. High time Mr. Anderson, 38, grew out of this childish phase and used his word processor to achieve some kind of script indicative of what you might call a maturity of vision.
The Squid and the Wail
Margot at the Wedding provides ample evidence of just how low Noah Baumbach has sunk. The Squid and the Whale showed great promise, but this excruciating piece of ranting, empty-headed nothingness rings an alarm bell. Despite the presence of Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, it’s so bad it’s dumbfounding. Ms. Kidman, plain and brunet and scowling throughout, plays Margot, a dyspeptic New York writer who travels to the wedding of her pregnant sister Pauline (a washed-out Ms. Leigh) and a weird, fat, chain-smoking creep named Malcolm (the repulsive Jack Black) who spends all of his time writing protest letters to newspapers and magazines. Since the opening shots of a stark-naked Jack Black rutting like a barnyard pig will turn countless numbers of moviegoers away, it’s best to be prepared before you buy a ticket. In the next scene, you have to endure the agony of Jack Black inspecting his scrotum in the mirror. What follows is 92 minutes of screaming, pouting, weeping and vomiting in an ugly home-movie style that could set movies back decades. The Squid and the Whale was funny and touching because it showed dysfunctional adults from the point of view of adolescents. But there is nothing funny about a movie in which absolutely everyone is dysfunctional regardless of age or gender. Margot at the Wedding is about a wagonload of miserable neurotics who babble endlessly about nothing, saying things like “I left a piece of skin in a movie house once, so it could watch movies all its life.” They despise everybody, especially themselves, without ever being even vaguely interesting. When the two women were girls, Margot sprinkled Pauline with paprika and shoved her into an oven. This is believable psychological motivation for adult rage? Ms. Leigh poops in her pants and Ms. Kidman says, “It happens to everyone, not just babies.” This is fresh writing? Well, why should I be surprised? Mr. Baumbach also co-authored Wes Anderson’s loathsome 2004 fiasco The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.
This movie literally knocks itself out trying to be humorous about dysfunctional sibling relationships, but only succeeds in being freaked-out and stupid. A lot of it is spent cutting down a tree, which falls on the wedding tent but unfortunately misses all the right people. Despite a few idiotic pseudo-philosophical one-liners about the differences between the sexes as a metaphor for the mental deficiency of 40-somethings in general, we never learn anything about what makes these insufferable bores tick. Ms. Kidman ends up throwing away her worldly belongings and chasing a bus on which her unlucky son escapes. Out of breath, she collapses inside the bus and gasps, “That was a lot of running,” as she fades to black. I was less disturbed by the fact that the movie has no ending than I was by the cockeyed presumption that any woman would leave her purse containing all of her money and credit cards on the side of a highway and never look back. Mr. Baumbach doesn’t realize it’s a thin line between eccentricity and mental retardation. It’s a puzzlement why, for a woman with so much beauty and talent, Nicole Kidman appears in so much junk. Maybe it’s something she picked up from Tom Cruise? Worst of all, she has been photographed in the style of an ugly home movie shot with a cellphone. As unforgivably rotten as Margot at the Wedding may be, there is no excuse for any movie to look like cat pee.
Dumping on Dylan
Saving the worst for last, I hardly know what to tell you about I’m Not There. Todd Haynes’ kaleidoscopic tribute to Bob Dylan is a torturous two hours and 15 minutes of psychedelic gibberish that reimagines the enigmatic, reclusive troubadour as six different people, including a black child and Cate Blanchett. It shows the loco lengths actors will go to in order to be in a movie. Riding the boxcars at age 11, he’s a black boy who calls himself Woody Guthrie. By the age of 20, he’s the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. In the 1960’s, he’s an evangelist called Pastor John (Christian Bale). Between the McCarthy era and Vietnam, he turns into a constantly touring, womanizing movie star named Robbie (Heath Ledger), lives in Greenwich Village with a French painter (Charlotte Gainsbourg), leads a protest movement as king of the beatnik coffee houses and loses his fans to rock ’n’ roll. As the movie snores its way through race riots and the Kennedy assassination, he turns into a troubled, sick, androgynous and dope-addicted rock icon called Jude (Ms. Blanchett, scarecrow-thin with fuzzy sideburns and inhaling streams of nicotine). Finally, in the worst and most preposterous of the vignettes, he is Billy the Kid, hunted down by Pat Garrett and a lynch mob in a western town where a kangaroo paces across the backdrop. Richard Gere looks totally confused and clueless as the outlaw, and I sympathized with him completely. Wandering in and out of the melee is a cast of 142 names, including Julianne Moore, Kris Kristofferson, Richie Havens, and Michelle Williams, playing characters based on Joan Baez, Edie Sedgwick, the Beatles, Malcolm X and Allen Ginsberg. Sometimes you don’t know who these people are, and at no time do you know what they are doing here in the first place. Oddly enough, in the most bizarre casting of the year, the stoned, mumbling, fagged-out, baggy-eyed Ms. Blanchett is the one who actually comes closest to resembling the real Bob Dylan. Putting the world on while hopeless journalists try vainly to pull something profound out of him, Dylan emerges from the truncated, disconnected episodes as something of a nut job, pretentious and boring. Your reaction will depend hugely on whether you see anything deep in Dylan’s music (I don’t) and whether you want to learn something—anything!—about the man you didn’t already know (you won’t). Instead, a tarantula crawls across the screen, Jesus writhes on the cross and a woman sets her head on fire.
I cannot believe this is the Todd Haynes who topped my ten-best list in 2002 with the magnificent, unforgettable Far From Heaven. Headed for the No. 1 spot on my ten-worst list, I’m Not There is a tumultuous disappointment. Chopped and shredded into shards of avant-garde impressionism, the film is without a thread of narrative coherence. It’s a 135-minute Cobb salad, what I call jerk-off filmmaking. It desperately needs cutting, and they should use a hatchet.