Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited - Review

Here's my review of The Darjeeling Limited - a version of this will appear later in Folio Weekly.

Strictly speaking, The Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson's first film since 2004's lackluster The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, really ought not to work. In terms of conventional plotting, very little happens. Anderson's familiar whimsy is again tinged with sorrow and melancholy, and the film's gently comic tone takes a surprisingly dark turn, momentarily, about two-thirds of the way into the movie.

The characters' various crises aren't really resolved, at least in any meaningful fashion. And Darjeeling, co-written by Anderson, Jason Schwartzman and his cousin Roman Coppola aboard a train across India, is designed by Mark Friedberg and art-directed by Aradhana Seth and Adam Stockhausen to every inch of its visually intoxicating life. It's all beautifully and very carefully captured by cinematographer Robert Yeoman. Did I mention that the film is determinedly self-referential and impossibly hung up on pop culture, with soundtrack borrowings from the Kinks and Indian filmmaking master Satyajit Ray, and nods to Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night and the Beatles' spiritual treks to the Far East?

Anderson's film nevertheless comes off as the most oddly affecting little movie of the season. It's funny, goofy and genuinely sweet, a story about three siblings' desperate and desperately misguided quest to heal family ties that have become unbound in the wake of a father's death and a mother's vanishing. It's easy, and comfortable, settling into the rhythms of life aboard the titular Indian train, and into the rhythms of the three brothers' language and long-established patterns of behavior, which will appear strange only to those few – where? – who were raised in perfectly functional families.

The premise is straightforward: Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson) has gathered his younger brothers Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Schwartzman), along with their set of 11 numbered Louis Vutton suitcases specially designed by Marc Jacobs, for a train trip across India's Rajasthani Desert. Yes, that luggage is in fact a metaphor for the siblings' emotional baggage, and they do shed the suitcases at the film's end. First-born Francis, a confirmed control freak, has pre-determined the goal of the mission: "I want us to become brothers like we used to be," he declares. He has also mapped out the itinerary, distributing laminated hourly schedules, with assistance provided by geeky, mysterious tech guy Brendan (Wally Wolodarsky).

Why India? Because it's so "spiritual" and, as Peter says, so "spicy." At the Temple of 1,000 Bulls, amidst chiming, chanting, incense and reams of billowing multicolored robes, the three prostrate themselves in front of an altar. "I don't feel anything," one of the Whitmans says. "We. Haven't. Located. Us. Yet," Frances says, echoing Brendan's analysis of how and why their train has somehow become "lost" after taking a wrong turn. It's the classic alienated youth (sort-of) story, a tale of contemporary Americans, unmoored, lost, bogged down in spiritual malaise, etc., on a Kerouacian journey to find meaning, or something. And yet, all of that isn't annoying, because Anderson approaches it with no quirk unturned.

It's all played for laughs, except when it's not. The Whitmans – a reference to both the different-flavors-in-one-box identity of the siblings and the tableaux-driven look of the movie – each come with a distinct set of problems. Frances, his face swollen and bandaged, is recovering from a recent accident that might have been a suicide attempt (it's impossible not to reflect on Wilson's real-life battle with depression). Peter, grappling with impending fatherhood, and life with a woman who may or not be his perfect match, has liberally lifted some of his late father's belongings, including comically oversized sunglasses and a set of keys. He declares that their late dad once said that Peter was his favorite son. Jack, a short-story writer who has to remind his siblings that his stories are fiction, not memoir, is obsessed with his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman), seen in a blink-and-you'll-miss-her cameo in Darjeeling and starring in a companion short film, Hotel Chevalier . The short, played at the critics' screening, is available on iTunes and bound for the DVD.

They seek spiritual solace via makeshift Hindu worship, as described above, and by other methods. Jack tries for a romance with "sweet Lime girl" Rita (Amara Karan), the pretty, very Westernized train stewardess. They seek meaning in possessions, in the form of items picked up in a bustling market -- a poisonous cobra, pepper spray, ornate slippers. They find redemption, of a sort, when they attempt to rescue three young brothers -- the number is no coincidence -- from rushing waters.

The ultimate balm for their psychic wounds appears to be a return to the womb, so to speak. Francis, all along, secretly has been pointing the trio of not-so-wise men in the direction of their mother Patricia (Angelica Huston), long disappeared to a life worshipping Mother Mary and Jesus at a convent tucked away high in the Himalayas. Trouble is, mom doesn't really want to see her boys, and asks that they return in the spring, when there will be less of a threat posed by the neighborhood's man-eating tigers, one of which ate "one of the sisters' brothers." The Whitmans persist, and their encounter with the no-nonsense mom is simultaneously revelatory and disappointing -- it's impossible to remake loved ones according to your expectations, and it's also impossible to escape the nature/nurture axis.

All of this action, so to speak, is encased (entombed?) in a universe defined by Anderson's fetish for carefully arranged and composed set pieces – the train, the markets, the holy places, a rural village, the convent – that are uniformly gorgeous and sometimes entrancing. Yeoman's camera seems to want to possess these places and objects (boxes, altars, train compartments, a baby cradle) in the same manner that the Whitmans want to fully absorb all that they're experiencing, grown-up little boys trying desperately to regain a storybook innocence that can't be recaptured in a storybook-India setting that never really existed. "I wonder if the three of us could have been friends in real – as people, not as brothers?" Jack asks. That's doubtful. The siblings nevertheless do arrive at a sort of truce, as much of a satisfying conclusion as this strangely compelling story really requires.


The Darjeeling Limited has opened in only a few cities so far, and it's picked up largely positive reviews. Click here to read a few.

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