The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - The Darjeeling Limited

Originally posted 10/17/07
Full review behind the jump

The Darjeeling Limited

: Wes Anderson
: Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola & Jason Schwartzman
: Wes Anderon, Scott Rudin, Roman Coppola, Lydia Dean Pilcher
Stars: Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Amara Karan, Wallace Wolodarsky, Waris Ahluwalia, Irfan Khan, Barbet Schroeder

After seeing Wes Anderson’s previous film,
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, I wrote: “I don’t think I saw a great movie, but I saw a great filmmaker figuring out, after facing distractions and temptations and the pitfalls of his rebellious and quirky approach, just how he wanted to proceed with his art.” And I still remember the odd sensation of not-quite loving the film in front of me, but knowing that another movie would come after this one, and I anticipated greatness from it.

I’m joyed to have that anticipation rewarded.
The Darjeeling Limited, the latest from one of the most distinctive filmmakers working in Hollywood today, is a movie of great warmth and feeling and life. It casts the artistry and alienation that are Anderson’s trademarks into a journey of almost agonizing heart. The persistent tragedy of Anderson’s characters is that they have extraordinary willpower and imagination, and can stride forth adventurously into the unknown, bring beautiful things into being; can, in fact, do anything they set their minds to, except make people love one another.

It’s this aching desire to create love between people through conscious and grandiose effort, and the underlying truth that love ultimately forges itself where it pleases, and is only felt when surrendered to, that propels the three brothers at the center of
Darjeeling. Eventually one of them must shout “I love you too, but I’m going to mace you in the face!” Which sums things up about as well as can be done.

The brothers are Francis (Owen Wilson), who in the wake of their father dying and their mother abandoning them to study at a monastery is working hard to embrace the role of parental figure; Peter (Adrien Brody), who is a kleptomaniac, about to become a father himself, and is suffering ambivalence about all of it; and Jack (Jason Schwartzman), who is trying to funnel all his strong feelings into stories that he insists are not autobiographical, even though their transcription is so accurate that the people he reads his stories to remember being there.

They haven’t seen each other since the day of Dad’s funeral, and Francis has decided that a “spiritual journey” by train across India, with a schedule calibrated by his assistant Brendan (long-time Simpsons writer Wallace Wolodarsky) to provide maximum enlightenment-per-mile, is just the thing for them. And it leads to the sort of rolling catastrophe of surprise, wonder, indignity, and optimism that you see Wes Anderson movies for. I do not know how it is that with every movie he seems to capture color combinations that have never been captured on film before, or scrounge up music of such heartbreaking power that you’ll never have heard before, but I must admire it.

I must also admire producer Scott Rudin, who has in many ways taken in Anderson and protected him from any poachers who might try to chip away at his non-conformity. Rudin has an extraordinary producing resume, putting forth unapologetically commercial fare like The Firm and Ransom, quirky big-budget convention-busters like The Truman Show and Sleepy Hollow, literate independents like The Hours and The Queen, and Team America: World Police, which is a category all its own. He was lampooned by Kevin Spacey in the darkly comic boss-from-hell movie Swimming With Sharks, but the truth is Anderson probably needs someone who is as passionate a movie-lover and as aggressively insane as Rudin is to stand guard on behalf of his fragile, lovely aesthetic.

What makes The Darjeeling Limited arguably my favorite Anderson work is that while there are the familiar brushstrokes – those elegant, almost chivalrous camera movements, the pregnant pauses, a sudden and violent tragedy involving water – the emotion of the piece is never inert. In other pictures he hoards all the naked sincerity inside, winding it up into one brief and potent explosion. Here he keeps the heart beating throughout, and the peaks lose none of their power – this is a story about people driven to near self-destructive madness by their yearnings, but they keep it all cloaked in cool wistfulness, in their deadpan faces and unchanging wardrobes and drastic impulses.

Each of the brothers lugs around several bulky pieces of their father’s monogrammed luggage collection – why do they carry it when they always wear the same thing? Francis has bandages all over his face from a motorcycle accident that left him briefly dead, and, also, might not have been an accident. A train attendant (Amara Karan) asks Jack: “What’s wrong with you?” Jack replies carefully: “Let me think about that. I’ll tell you the next time I see you.” Both know that they will probably never see each other again, and Jack will never be able to think his way out of his problems, but he says it anyway. Anderson recognizes the poignancy of being smart enough to know all this, and still be unable to stop yourself from doing these things.

The vistas of India are still exotic to Western audiences, and are a reminder that the real world creates wonders of a richness and complexity that computers can’t match. And all along the journey are magnificent little performances, like the one by Waris Ahluwalia as a train conductor who cows the brothers like a stern headmaster, or Irfan Khan as a grieving father in a performance with no English words, because none are necessary. Even Anderson stalwarts Bill Murray and Anjelica Huston put in brief turns, where they make themselves affectionately comfortable within the lunacy.

I don’t think I’ve expressed enough just how funny The Darjeeling Limited is, but I think that its humor is not an expression of comedy so much as humanity. Its sense for surprise, its curiosity, and the brotherly love its own brothers seem to be the last to grasp, these prod laughs out of each audience member as if it’s a fireside story told to only them. The wonder of mass intimacy – that’s the essence of cinema, and Wes Anderson has proven his mastery of it.

P.S. The film is rather uniquely preceded by a tie-in short, The Hotel Chevalier, an impeccably-designed 13-minute vignette featuring Jack, an old flame played by Natalie Portman, and a song called "Where Do You Go To My Lovely" by Peter Sarstedt that will stay in your head almost as long as the sense of deep anger and heartbreak that lives in their halting conversation and lust. While it’s not necessary to see to understand the feature, it gives you a context for Jack’s angst and sets-up a rewarding payoff. It was released for free download at the iTunes movie store, but seeing it on the big screen will allow you to notice and appreciate fine detail, like the toothpick that explains so much history.


  • "It ate the sister's brother." I love how the brothers Whitman laugh at that line, or how they throw rocks at the train, or their
    fascination with over-the-counter Indian medicine. While I believe Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson give career-best performances, Adrien Brody(who has the best sad clown face since Buster Keaton) delivers the strongest work, particulary in the scene with the baby. And no moment last year, outside of Chigurh checking his shoes and Plainview with his bowling alley, affected me quite as much as the scene where the Whitman brothers abandon the past. "The Darjeeling Limited" is Wes Anderson's most assured work to date. And still there are those who chide him for having great taste in music. Sheesh.

    By Anonymous Mike De Luca, at 6:34 AM  

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