Deeper Into Movies: The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

Photo courtesy of James Hamilton

The best part of a Wes Anderson movie is often its beginning. In modern classics such as Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, the opening scenes are spent detailing the ornately constructed lives of Anderson’s idiosnycratic characters; The Darjeeling Limited, on the other hand, jumps onto a train and chugs forward full speed ahead. No introductions required. By throwing away most of the exposition and putting the rest of it in a seperate work entirely (if you don’t watch the 12-minute short Hotel Chevalier – free on iTunes – Jason Schwartzman’s character will lose much of his emotional resonance), Anderson has made his most courageous film. It’s also his most flawed. [Continue reading…]

Like The Life Aquatic before it, Darjeeling steams through new terrain: India, a place that allows many of the director’s usual conceits to work gorgeously. The exotic, sandy landscapes and crowded, colorful markets are visual poetry in the hands of the film’s wide-angle lenses. The colors themselves, in traditional Anderson fashion, are rich and vivid, creating a tonal excitement to play against the perfect-on-purpose doll-house framing of the sets and camera angles.

The characters who populate this world of trains and deserts (and a mountaintop nunnery) demonstrate a similar vitality. Anderson’s India is full of robe-clad villagers and poisonous snakes, thieving shoe-shiners and beautiful train stewardesses. Adrian Brody is a breath of fresh air in Anderson’s almost museum-like world, inhabiting the role of Peter – a reluctant father-to-be whose relationship with his own father still grieves him – with a somber power. Schwartzman is also moving as an expatriate on the run from a girl (a pixie-haired Natalie Portman, who you quite literally see much more of in Hotel Chevalier) who seems unable to let go of him.

If this all sounds less funny than the director’s last few films, it’s because it is. Darjeeling is ultimately a heartfelt, serious work, something giving up the usual quirky meet-and-greet intro surely symbolizes. If only it would embrace the dramatic entirely. For all his likeability, Owen Wilson is an odd man out here: as Francis, his vaunted charm rings a bit false in the face of his depressed siblings, and his related Anderson-isms – a secretive, bald assistant is the most unnecessary – clutter and obscure the view of two much more interesting characters.

The second half, launched by a stunning sequence river that might be the best thing Anderson’s ever put to film, brushes aside most of the quirk-for-quirk’s sake and delivers on the film’s promise, but not before introducing another extraneous element that’s neither funny or emotionally stirring enough to justify its inclusion. In a typical Anderson film, the characters are sympathetic because they’re all so unrealistic that you’re able to enter their world; Darjeeling tiptoes nervously along the line between realism and Anderson-ism without fully embracing either, and the film feels fractured as a result.

After the film screened two nights ago at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, Anderson (who was on hand with actor Wallace Wolodarsky and Roman Coppola, one of the film’s co-writers along with Schwartzman and himself) said it was his most personal film. It’s certainly his most serious – while funny, even hysterical at times, it’s no comedy. But that’s an asset to a movie that struggles mightily to transcend a filmmaker’s cliches even as it fails to play to many of his strengths; this is an important work for Anderson, and hopefully one which will launch him in a new direction. But growth requires the stumbles of experience, and this is a film full of them. The Darjeeling Limited may require multiple trips to unravel itself, but after a maiden voyage, I’m not unsatisfied with its rewards.

Previously: Romance & Cigarettes (2007)


Deeper Into Movies is a Yo La Tengo song and, in this case, a film review column. Click below for more.