Mark Reviews Movies


3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Amara Karan, Waris Ahluwalia, Wallace Wolodarsky, Anjelica Huston

MPAA Rating: R (for language)

Running Time: 1:31

Release Date: 9/29/07 (limited); 10/5/07 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik

It would seem (thankfully) that Wes Anderson's last movie The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was a (hopefully) one-time experiment in sheer (and pointless) quirkiness, because The Darjeeling Limited finds Anderson back in fine form. When the director focuses on an emotional, universal theme, whether it's the pains of adolescence (Rushmore) or the dysfunctional family (The Royal Tenenbaums), he has his most success. With this film, he and co-screenwriters Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman (who also co-stars in the picture) concentrate on that mysterious link between siblings—those people who know us better than we'd ever care to admit. For this sad but ultimately optimistic tale of estranged brothers reuniting under strained, phony circumstances, Anderson, Coppola, and Schwartzman set up a literal scenario to showcase the old metaphor that life is a journey, and while some of that theme gets blatantly obvious near the somewhat problematic end, the journey of the film itself more than compensates. Anderson's idiosyncratic style of oddball, dialogue-driven humor is present, but like those previously mentioned films, it's the way that humor and those strange characteristics tie to the central thematic focus that make Anderson's work more than the sum of its eccentric parts.

The film opens as a businessman (Bill Murray in an amusing cameo) is riding in a taxi through the busy streets of a city in India to catch a train. The train departs as he arrives, and as he runs to catch it, Peter Whitman (Adrien Brody) runs ahead of him from behind, catching the train and leaving the businessman behind. On board, Peter meets his also-saintly-named brothers Francis (Owen Wilson) and John, called Jack (Schwartzman), in their compartment, which, the chief steward (Waris Ahluwalia) assures the smokers, is non-smoking. Francis says he was in a car accident, which has left him heavily bandaged, and his first thoughts after regaining consciousness were of Peter and Jack. This trip is to be a spiritual journey, a way for the three to become brothers again. He even has laminated copies of an itinerary for them. It's been a year since the three last saw each other after the death of their father, but the old habits of rivalries, bickering, and secret-keeping are still strong. Jack writes short stories about his family experience (he insists the characters are fictitious) and his relationship with his ex-girlfriend, whose voice mail he checks regularly. Peter is about to become a father; he tells Jack but doesn't want Francis to know.

Jack has bought a separate plane ticket for Italy, which he intends to use before the trip is over; he tells Peter but doesn't want Francis to know. Francis has a secret, too, and it's not the location of his mysterious assistant Brendan (Wallace Wolodarsky), whom Francis insisted to bring a laminating machine (and whose baldness is a touchy subject), but the phone calls Brendan keeps making from his cabin. It's all a circle of mistrust and small attempts at gaining power over each other. Peter has many of their father's personal possessions (a razor, sunglasses, etc.), which Francis thinks should belong to them all, and Peter makes sure to flaunt the story that their father loved him the most. Jack has written a story about the day of their father's funeral, and upon reading it, Peter excuses himself to cry in the water closet. The secrets don't last long, and Francis nabs his brothers' passports to make sure they don't bail out. The dynamics of the relationships are revealed naturally and spot on in the dialogue, and Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Schwartzman are completely in tune with the feuding in terms of what it means to them individually and as a shared familial unit.

Francis has taken over the role of the father, ordering his brothers around. Peter, like has sainted namesake, is a kind of foundation for them, even though he's dealing with having a child in a marriage he was convinced would end in divorce. Jack, the youngest, still pines for a woman he clearly dislikes (he has sprays the compartment with a bottle of her perfume) but hooks up with stewardess Rita (Amara Karan), and his elder brothers try to get him away from the woman they think is "gaslighting" their baby brother. To try to escape their personal problems and bond together, Francis takes them on trips during the train's stops to spiritual centers (The Indian locales are gorgeously captured by cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman), but they can't help stopping at the local market for the necessities, like pepper spray and a cobra, both of which are used to great effect in two separate manic sequences. At one point, the train gets lost (Yes, that is absurd and treated as such), prompting Brendan to make a statement Francis takes as profound: "We haven't found us yet." So, they try, using peacock feathers and the wind, mixing multiple pharmaceuticals while out in the desert, and visiting a small village, where Anderson adeptly shifts the tone when the brothers confront death.

It might sound random, but there is method here. The journey metaphor unites the whole thing, and after being faced with multiple choices (Anderson uses a succinct, triangular pan in one scene to illustrate the brothers' (one point) possibilities: the village (second point) or the bus (third point)), Francis, Peter, and Jack realize they must face their past. During a funeral in the village, there's a flashback to an auto shop on the day of their father's funeral (the story Jack wrote) that is poignant in its simplicity of showing the men dealing with their grief—the mundane acting as the illustrator for the heartbreaking. Enter Anjelica Huston as the boys' potential for emotional relief, and watch how Anderson handles the peculiarity of the scene, set in a monastery in the Himalayas and involving a man-eating tiger, and somehow makes it emotionally relevant. The film totters on falling apart here, especially during a labored "we're all on the train" sequence, but when the brothers literally throw away their baggage to continue their trek, it's easy to forgive Anderson's oddities for the kind of honesty for which he uses them.

What I most admire about Anderson is his confidence in laying all his cards on the table. His neo-New Wave style is and makes us conscious of technique, but when he's on, Anderson balances the artifice with the affecting in a way that somewhat blindsides us with its sincerity. The balance of The Darjeeling Limited is weighted just right.

Note: A short entitled "Hotel Chevalier" should have accompanied the film, but it doesn't.  It's available as a free download on iTunes and, I'm assured, will be on the DVD.  It shows Jack with his girlfriend (Natalie Portman), and it expands his backstory, makes you laugh when Jack plays Peter Sarstedt's "Where Do You Go to My Lovely" for the stewardess, and explains why Portman is in the "we're all on the train" sequence.  It's also a fine short about a decaying relationship.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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