The Darjeeling Limited
2007Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson
he Darjeeling Limited starts on the move. A tiny three-wheeled taxi races through a crowded marketplace, dodging cows and barefoot children. The turbaned driver clutches the wheel. Sitar music winds from the stereo. It seems like we're in India. But then the taxi's passenger, a rumpled Bill Murray, dashes out of the cab after a departing train. As he hustles after it, aloof, heavy-footed, the film seizes up into slow motion, and Murray is overtaken by Adrien Brody, who leaps, scarecrow-like, onto the caboose, as a bittersweet Kinks song kicks in on the soundtrack. Brody turns back, a quiet sadness fills his face, and we realize we aren't in India at all, but someplace far stranger—a place where every outfit is color-coded to match the wallpaper, the weather is always vaguely autumn, and moments of high emotion come equipped with their own mix-tape-ready album cut from the early '70s. Call it Andersonville.
This is writer-director Wes Anderson's first film since 2004's semi-disastrous The Life Aquatic, an uneven if underrated picture that was generally seen as one movie too many about depressed eccentrics and distant father-figures. To judge from Darjeeling, he hasn't taken the criticism to heart—the movie centers on the three Whitman brothers, who reconvene one year after their father's funeral, all suffering from various symptoms of melancholia: Peter (Adrian Brody) is seeking to avoid his oncoming fatherhood, Francis (Owen Wilson) is recovering from a self-inflicted motorcycle accident, and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) is struggling to come to terms with the end of an evidently unhealthy relationship. Francis, the oldest Whitman, has dragged his brothers to India hoping to micro-manage a spiritual journey, and possibly to seek out their long-lost mother (she's retreated to a convent in the Himalayas, Black Narcissus-style). Along the way, they will reopen old wounds, abuse prescription drugs, and attempt to bond between moments of bickering. As even a cursory description of the story demonstrates, it's easy to dismiss Darjeeling as yet another Wes Anderson movie. It is neither an apology for, nor a turn away from The Life Aquatic, and viewers who hated his scarf-clad shtick to begin with (and there are many) won't find anything here to change their minds.
And yet, for all its familiarity, Darjeeling represents a legitimate attempt to branch out in new directions. While Aquatic and The Royal Tenenbaums often felt dangerously stiff and posed, this new picture feels emphatically alive, even at its most artificial. The soundtrack still leans heavily on forgotten British Invasion cuts, but it focuses more on Ravi Shankar than Keith Richards. The costumes and production design are lavish as always, with bright splashes of blood-orange and mint-green, but Darjeeling is shot mostly on location, and Anderson demonstrates a new, cautious simplicity in his direction—here the whip-pans, horizontal tracks, and impeccable framing feel casual, even elegant. It's a decidedly modest movie, with one major location, three principal characters, and the same relaxed, laid-back pace that accompanies cross-country travel. In that way, it most resembles the startling Bottle Rocket, still the loosest of Anderson's films, and perhaps the most human. I suspect that in time, Darjeeling will come to be seen as a transitional work, one that bridges the improvisatory, emotional feel of the director's early films with the cool visual splendor of his later ones. The screenplay, written by Anderson, Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, feels confident, if structurally unfocused, and it seems to want to move in several directions at once. As a result, the second half of the movie lurches rather than coasts, but maybe that's just the price to pay for spontaneity—better that an Anderson movie should follow the scattershot impulses of its characters than bury them under layers of visual detail.
Not that the director has totally forgotten detail—I'm particularly fond of little flourishes like Peter's habit of quietly stealing from family members, Jack's obsession with checking his ex's voicemail, or Francis' bruised face, wrapped in bandages. Brody, Schwartzman, and Wilson don't exactly look like brothers, but the three are so united by lovingly layered tics of behavior, patterns of speech, and sibling rivalries that they seem to share a history that the Tenenbaum children never did. The key to Darjeeling's success—the reason it's a step forward instead of sideways—is that the film's details are inextricable from the characters they're attributed to. This isn't ornamentation, like Margot Tenenbaum's wooden finger or Steve Zissou's wool cap—these are facades that reveal internal states of mind. The tension between the two provides for some of the funniest moments in movies this year—and the most touching. Anderson's control-freak micromanaging was threatening to obscure the love for people that was so evident in—and so crucial to—his earlier pictures. But with Darjeeling, a movie that is at once icily orchestrated and warmly human, he's found away to have his curry and eat it too.
The Darjeeling Limited is currently playing in limited release.
By: Patrick McKay
Published on: 2007-10-10