Have you noticed that we all have very similar noses?
Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman
I approached The Darjeeling Limited with equal parts anticipation and trepidation.
Wes Anderson’s films are like the elaborate set designs he favors: they are easy to appreciate, yet ultimately claustrophobic. He fashions worlds that match his highly styled characters and only they can truly feel comfortable within them. The rest of us find ourselves looking for an exit.
I say this while admitting that Rushmore, my first exposure to Anderson, felt like a small miracle. I reveled in its tone, its refusal to provide anything in terms of narrative comfort. Anderson constructs worlds with rules that are known only to their inhabitants.
And The Royal Tenenbaums holds a special place on my DVD shelf, if only for Owen Wilson’s thickheaded author. (“Everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is . . . maybe he didn’t?)
But then came The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which I eagerly anticipated and which left me almost angry. And what was becoming clear is that Anderson’s world was growing smaller even as his subject matter (and his budget) was adopting a large scale. While his films had never been studies in realism to begin with, Life Aquatic felt rooted in nothing save the production design, with its characters completely subsumed within.
For much of Darjeeling, I felt the same way, that Anderson had simply replaced the submarine with a train and an inscrutable protagonist (Bill Murray) with the equally hard-to-read Whitman brothers.
The basic plot is similar to Into the Wild, reviewed below (I think I tend to bunch movies on Netflix thematically, even if it is subconsciously): A search for meaning, a search for spirituality. But Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson again) and his brothers Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman, seemingly playing Luke Wilson) really are sort of spiritual tourists, following an exhaustively planned itinerary prepared by Francis, right down to laminated cards. (In that sense, his character is an echo of the one he played in Bottle Rocket, Anderson’s first feature, with his intricate—and idiotic—plans for capers.)
The brothers fight. They get loaded on unknown Indian pharmaceuticals. Jack becomes involves with one of the train attendants.
They engage themselves in dramatic conspiracy theories. (This must be what it’s like to have two brothers, the sense that they are always keeping secrets from you.) Eventually, they find themselves completely out of their element.
JACK: What did he say?
PETER: He said the train is lost.
JACK: How can a train be lost? It’s on rails.
Along the way, something unexpected happens. Anderson’s characters grow more human, begin to thaw out. The three brothers are trying to recover from the death of their father and their own chaotic upbringing. Along the way, they encounter a tragedy that imbues Anderson’s brightly painted fantasy with a welcome touch of mortality. That event transports the film from the milieu of the whiny privileged to a true opportunity for growth. (Let it be said that not every review I have read greets this development so warmly, with some finding it cold and manipulative and others finding it done simply for aesthetic reasons.)
The movie is a mere 91 minutes long and is the first one I have seen in awhile that felt too short. Although my sense is that Anderson was right about the length. The film’s brevity helps its clarity and anymore tics, asides or brightly-appointed props would have exhausted our patience.
Also, make sure you watch the short feature that serves as a prologue to Darjeeling, called The Hotel Chevalier with Schwartzman as Jack Whitman and Natalie Portman. The latter, heartbreakingly gorgeous, in just a few minutes somehow makes you fall in love with her and scare the hell out of you at the same time, much as she does to Schwarztman’s character, who is hiding from her in Paris.
JACK’S EX-GIRLFRIEND: Whatever happens in the end, I don’t wanna lose you as my friend.
JACK: I promise, I will never be your friend. No matter what. Ever.