A little more than an hour through Wes Anderson’s new comedy-drama “The Darjeeling Limited,” Owen Wilson—playing Francis, one of three brothers on a spiritual journey across India—stands in front of a bathroom mirror and removes the bandages that have been wrapped a round his head for the entire movie.
These bandages are preposterously exaggerated—they look like the kind of thing Wile E. Coyote might turn up wearing, immediately after getting an anvil dropped on his head—so when they finally come off, it’s a shock to realize that they’re covering up serious wounds. Beneath the dressing, Francis’ skin is pallid and purple, his blond hair is grimy and matted, and an enormous scar runs along the side of his head.
The Darjeeling Limited
Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Amara Karan, Camilla Rutherford, Anjelica Huston
US theatrical: 29 Sep 2007 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 23 Nov 2007 (General release)
A few scenes later, Francis makes an even more poignant revelation: This injury, which he’s told everyone was caused by an accident, was in fact the result of his deliberately crashing his motorcycle.
And even if you know nothing about Wilson’s personal struggles and his apparent suicide attempt in August, this scene—and especially the halting, roundabout way in which Francis confesses to his brothers (Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brody) and mother (Anjelica Huston)—carries an unexpected sting.
We can no longer look upon Francis as a sunbeam-infused optimist with the pesky habit of ordering dinner on behalf of his brothers. Instead, we’re offered a sobering reminder that sometimes the only way tortured souls can carry on living is by tending to everyone else’s problems and trying to make the world laugh.
As a movie, “The Darjeeling Limited” is a grating, crushing failure; Anderson (“Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums”) has allowed the quirky flourishes and precious affectations that punctuated his previous movies to completely obliterate story and character development.
But it also features the best and bravest acting Wilson has ever done—a performance that might just point the way forward for this troubled soul, both professionally and personally.
After years of repeating himself, playing the same nasally voiced, easy-does-it stoner dude in movies like “Meet the Parents,” “Wedding Crashers” and even the animated “Cars,” Wilson has finally taken on a role with some dark undercurrents. Perhaps more important, for the first time since his debut feature “Bottle Rocket,” he seems to have found a creative outlet for his personal demons.
No, “The Darjeeling Limited” is not going to be an instant cure for Wilson’s problems. Considering that the film finished shooting nearly a year before his reported suicide attempt, the experience of making it might even have contributed to his recent turmoil. But the resulting achievement is one worth clinging to, especially for those of us eager to see this gifted and idiosyncratic comic voice rise again. It feels as if Wilson, finally, is willing to open up and allow us to understand what makes him tick.
By now, the Owen Wilson Cinderella story is pretty much etched in stone: He was born in Dallas in 1968 to a photographer mother and ad-executive father. His wisecracking, trouble-making ways got him expelled from Dallas’ St. Mark’s School of Texas, before he was eventually shipped off to military school in New Mexico.
It was at the University of Texas, however, that he met Wes Anderson and found his calling. The two collaborated on the screenplay for a short film titled “Bottle Rocket,” which Anderson directed. The short got the attention of producer James L. Brooks (“The Simpsons,” “Terms of Endearment”), who helped them finance a feature-length version. That film, also titled “Bottle Rocket” (1996), about a guy named Dignan (Wilson) who busts his friend (Wilson’s younger brother, Luke) out of a mental hospital and then plans a hapless comic heist, wasn’t much of a hit. But it got the attention of critics and the film industry and instantly launched all of their careers.
Watching Owen Wilson in “Bottle Rocket” now is a little disorienting: Could the actor have changed so much in 11 years? With his pudgy face and his hair shorn in a boxy, military-style cut, Wilson’s Dignan looks utterly different from the actor we’ve seen lately in “You, Me and Dupree” and “Night at the Museum,” with his slim frame and stringy blond locks.
And the “Bottle Rocket” performance is unlike anything we saw from him again. He plays Dignan as a bundle of nervous energy, half-sweet and half-grating—he’s like a shaken-up soda can desperate to burst. Wilson’s great skill is that, even as he pokes gentle fun at the often clueless character, he never loses touch with his poignant core: This is a fundamentally troubled guy who, not matter how doggedly he tries, seems incapable of making life go his way.
But Hollywood studios weren’t necessarily interested in the subtlety and pathos that Wilson might bring to a part. Instead, they saw him as a new kind of `90s joker, a slacker icon who—with his many-times-broken nose and slowed-down, pothead patois—could float through action movies (“Anaconda”) and comedies (“Meet the Parents,” “Shanghai Noon”) alike. His ironically detached style was amusing for a while (in fact, he’s quite terrific as the world’s most unlikely geologist in “Armageddon”). But within a stretch of a few years, Wilson turned up in one awful buddy movie after another (“I Spy,” “Zoolander”), playing basically the same character until he was completely typecast and filmmakers could no longer see him doing anything else.
Of course, he always had Anderson—the best friend to whom he would return every few years to work on a new script. The two collaborated again on 1998’s “Rushmore” and 2001’s “The Royal Tenenbaums.” At the time, most critics assumed that Anderson provided the drama and emotion while Wilson supplied the jokes. But in hindsight, it’s easy to read these films as deeply personal ones for Wilson: “Rushmore” is about a lonely, alienated but overachieving teenager who can’t seem to fit in anywhere; “Tenenbaums” is about three erstwhile child prodigies who now feel defeated and dejected by their early success.
In public, Wilson had mastered the art of seeming like the perpetually smooth and hip movie star—the guy without a problem in the world. The reality is probably much different: Like most writers, he simply used his work as the means to express deep frustrations and disappointments that he kept inside.
Except that the collaborations with Anderson stopped. Wilson said in interviews that he was too busy acting to carve out time to work on a new script. (This despite the fact that, early in his career, he said he regarded himself as more writer than actor.)
And while it would be reductive and insensitive to draw a direct line from the end of Wilson’s screenwriting with Anderson to his recent personal crisis, the sad fact is this: Since 2001, Wilson hasn’t made a single movie worth remembering. By the time “Wedding Crashers” emerged as a surprise blockbuster in summer 2005, the actor had turned into a self-parody. He gets laughs without even opening his mouth, but it’s more out of exasperation from the audience than appreciation. We know exactly what he’s going to do, usually at least 10 minutes before he does it.
On Oct. 4, Owen Wilson appeared onstage at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, alongside Anderson and his “Darjeeling” co-stars, for the film’s Los Angeles premiere. It was his first public appearance since late August, and, by all accounts, Wilson looked healthy and happy. But he also was careful to avoid the press line, leaving his colleagues to answer the incessant, tasteless questions about his mental well-being.
Why did he do it? Has he always been so depressed? Did he really mean to kill himself—or was it just a cry for help? These questions are nobody’s business but Wilson’s, and as he continues on his path to recovery, he deserves the space to heal privately. Indeed, just writing this essay feels like a bit of a violation of the actor. Certainly no artist should have to endure having his work read like tea leaves, as complete strangers attempt to probe his psyche from afar.
But I believe that there’s a silver lining for Wilson here—an opportunity that he should be encouraged to seize. For instance, he hasn’t been cast in a drama since 2001’s “Behind Enemy Lines,” partly, I suspect, because Hollywood producers won’t consider him for such parts; they don’t think the audience will buy him as a serious guy with a complicated inner life.
But now Wilson has revealed to the world, in stark and tragic fashion, that he’s not the happy-go-lucky guy we all thought he was. For perhaps the first time, he has the chance to be himself, both in his art and in his life. And as comics as wide-ranging as Charles Chaplin, Steve Martin and Bill Murray have shown in movies like “City Lights,” “Roxanne” and “Lost in Translation,” it’s usually clowns who are secretly crying inside who have the most enduring legacies.
Mostly, though, I hope Wilson returns to writing and finds a way to work through his turmoil on the page. (“The Darjeeling Limited” is the No. 1 case study of a movie that might have been served well by his ability to rein in some of Anderson’s more obnoxious and precious flights of forced whimsy.) He will likely struggle with personal demons for many years. But screenwriting strikes me as an infinitely more valuable outlet for those demons than playing the snarky second banana to Ben Stiller in yet another forgettable comedy.
In movies like “Starsky and Hutch” and “Night at the Museum,” Wilson makes us chuckle for a couple of hours. But when he pours his heart and soul onto the screen, as he did in “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore,” and as he does for a few fleeting moments in “The Darjeeling Limited,” he makes the sort of connection with an audience that is invaluable—and that might just be his salvation.
THE SERIOUS SIDE: MOVIES THAT SHOW WILSON’S DRAMATIC CHOPS
We’re all intimately—some might even say too intimately—acquainted with Owen Wilson’s comic performances in movies like “Shanghai Noon,” “Shanghai Knights,” “The Wedding Crashers” and “Starsky and Hutch.” But before he settled into this recent rut, Wilson turned up in a number of intriguing movies where he tested his range as an actor. Truth be told, none of these forays into more dramatic parts are particularly successful as movies (the first three on the list below you might not even have heard of). But they remind us that Wilson is more than just a goofy face; and they’re precisely the kind of projects he should think about pursuing as he begins to rebuild his career.
“Permanent Midnight” (1998) 3 of 5 stars
In this harrowing, darkly comic drama based on the memoir by Jerry Stahl, Ben Stiller plays the heroin-junkie TV writer Stahl and Wilson is Nicky, one of his enabler friends. Wilson isn’t given much to do, but his few scenes with Stiller are powerful and memorable. And while the movie turns overwrought and uneven, it’s still a chilling portrait of life in the Hollywood fast lane.
“The Minus Man” (1999) 2 of 5 stars
One of Wilson’s least-seen efforts is this oddball drama about a mild-mannered serial killer who drifts across the country choosing victims he believes want to be killed. The storytelling is confused and tedious, but Wilson proves surprisingly convincing as a laconic boy-next-door whose sunny exterior is masking a savage core.
“Behind Enemy Lines” (2001) 2 of 5 stars
Wilson plays a naval navigator whose plane is shot down behind enemy lines in Bosnia in this fact-based war drama. It’s a boilerplate escape-from-hostile-territory movie, and Wilson often looks out of his league amid all the action-movie pyrotechnics. But give him points for taking on the most physically challenging role of his career.
“The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) 3 of 5 stars
Following three former child prodigies (Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller and Gwyneth Paltrow) reckoning with their lout of a father (Gene Hackman), Tenenbaums features Owen Wilson in a small, affecting role as Eli Cash, a writer of best-selling Western novels. Of Anderson and Wilson’s three screenplay collaborations (the other two are “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore”), this offers up the most assured mixture of offbeat humor and tenderness.