Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

I try not to pre-judge movies before I watch them, like a responsible reviewer. But I have to admit, I wasn't expecting to like Wes Anderson's new film, The Darjeeling Limited. I disliked Anderson's last film, The Life Aquatic, which felt entirely too broad and forced, like some hack trying to imitate the director's signature style rather than his own work. The trailers for Darjeeling so heavily emphasized the "Wes Anderson-ness" of the new film, with the director's trademark tracking shots, stock company of actors, classic rock montages and close-ups of background minutae taking center stage. I just assumed this would be another retread, one more trip back to the well for a guy that was growing more and more predictable by the day.

So it gives me great pleasure to report that Darjeeling is a major step up from Aquatic, a film that's infused with a lot of the elements that make Wes Anderson movies great but not overwhelmed by his presence. This is a very sad story about some pretty unpleasant people - it's really a meditation on selfishness - that's very funny, charming and frequently beautiful. It may be Anderson's best film since his breakthrough hit, Rushmore.

The Whitman Brothers, like a lot of Wes Anderson heroes, cannot live in the moment because they are fixated on the past. Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson), the eldest brother, has been recently mangled in a motorcycle accident. When asked about it, he responds that he "ran into a cliff on purpose" before catching himself. Jack Whitman (Jason Schwartzman, who co-wrote the film with his cousin Roman Coppola and Anderson) still pines for the woman (played by Natalie Portman in Hotel Chevalier, a short film/prologue to Darjeeling available free on iTunes) who left him months before. Peter Whitman (Adrian Brody, in one of the year's best performances) isn't ready to be a father, despite the fact that his wife's due to give birth in six weeks.

Though we sense that they've always been troubled and neurotic, the Whitman boys have been haunted for the past year by the death of their beloved father Jimmy, who was struck down in the street by a taxi. They have not spoken since the funeral, a silence eventually broken with Francis invites the other two to take a train ride with him across India.

The best thing Anderson did with Darjeeling is give these three parts to these guys. Brody's extremely awkward, almost alien, as Peter, who never seems to know how to respond to anything, or even where to stand. It's almost as if Anderson blocked out the entire film without Brody present, and then just threw him into the scenes last minute. Wilson, as everyone now realizes, was going through a very difficult time personally while portraying Francis, but it's easily among his most charming, most Owen Wilson-y characters. Hidden behind bandages for the majority of the movie, he still makes Francis the most human and fragile of the brothers. He's an extremely difficult guy to be around - bossy and demanding, then hurt when one of his instructions isn't followed to the letter.

All of Anderson's films address, in some way, this kind of wounded narcissism. His characters struggle to connect, but always seem to do so with an air of heightened expectation and arrogance. "Here I am," Royal Tenenbaum, Max Fischer and Francis Whitman all seem to say. "Now, it's your duty to love and accept me!" When others don't reciprocate in quite the way they expect, it sends these men into an uncontrollable downward spiral.

Darjeeling is Anderson's most clear-eyed, honest and therefore most depressing examination of this syndrome. Francis is controlling to an almost maniacal degree, constantly telling his brothers, directly, what they're all going to do, how they're all going to feel, and even what they should order for breakfast. Then he wonders why they avoid him and keep secrets. Peter has allowed his grief to overtake his entire life for a year and has become something of a kleptomaniac. Jack spends the bulk of the film obsessively following around two women, listening to the messages on his ex-girlfriend's answering machine and semi-stalking the comely, and attached, stewardess on the train. These characters have apparently taken this journey to connect with each other, but can't seem to actually spend any time together. And when they're forced into one another's company, they can't get past their feelings of perpetual victimhood and paranoia for long enough to even conduct some small talk.

Francis wants to take a spiritual journey, and has tasked his assistant, Brendan (Wallace Wolodarsky), with staying in another train compartment and planning trips to all sorts of shrines and temples. But of course, with their minds permanently elsewhere, scheming and planning out their next move and nursing private resentments, all the meditation and sacred Hindu rites are hollow and meaningless. (Personal squabbles prevent them from even kneeling before the same deity. Peter has to get up and pray somewhere else.)

Anderson mines similar comic territory as David O. Russell in I Heart Huckabee's (also with Schwartzman, interestingly enough...) Life is a constant struggle between the desire of higher consciousness and understanding, and the daily, material grind of actions and consequences. One minute, Jack, Peter and Francis are standing on a hillside holding aloft peacock feathers, recreating some ancient mystic rite, and then next they're debating whether or not their dead father would approve of Peter using his razor.

The Indian desert is actually an ideal venue for Anderson's deadpan comic style (and not only because all of his films have included humorously silent Indian men). Unlike the animated underwater wonderland of Life Aquatic or the absurd prep school caricature of Rushmore, Darjeeling takes place in a recognizable, real environment, which gives the film a bit of added impact. We're still definitely in Wes Andersonland. The use of Peter Sarstedt's ridiculous, lilting ballad "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)" in both Darjeeling and Hotel Chevalier is a telling detail, an almost self-aware gesture.


Like Sarstedt's flowery language and pretentious references, Anderson films linger in a world of precious, twee details and spontaneous, adorable outpourings of emotion. (It's such an apt comparison, Sarstedt's narrator could easily be an Anderson protagonist.) But Darjeeling starts reigning it in at some point, pulling back from the fantasy, unafraid to stare a little more deeply into the darkness, creating something more recognizably human and heartfelt.

The protagonists eventually find themselves stuck in a small Indian village amidst a tragedy, and the film gets a bit more serious. Anderson starts to actually let go of the half-ironic smirk that generally holds sway over his movies. He, for once, gets real. He should do it more often.

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