by Mel Valentin
Once, not long ago, a Wes Anderson film was considered an "event" film among cineastes. "Bottle Rocket," Anderson's debut co-written with longtime friend and actor Owen Wilson, signaled the arrival of an independent filmmaker with a unique voice, but it was his second film, "Rushmore," made with a larger budget and Bill Murray in one of the lead roles and again co-written with Wilson, that brought Anderson to justifiably wider acclaim and appreciation by audiences. With an obsessive eye for visual detail and character eccentricities, Anderson became a brand name. His next film, "The Royal Tenenbaums," a sprawling, serio-comic look at a dysfunctional family, was perhaps his most assured, but Anderson's last film "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" signaled a more self-indulgent turn in Anderson's obsessions. Anderson's latest, "The Darjeeling Limited," shows a filmmaker struggling to say something relevant or insightful about familial relationships, but only partially succeeding.The Darjeeling Limited focuses on three brothers, Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman). The brothers haven't spoken since their father's funeral a year before. Francis, head bandaged from a near-fatal motorcycle crash, invites Peter and Jack to India for a month-long train journey aboard the Darjeeling Limited, a colorful train fifty years out of date. Francis hopes that the journey will bring them back together, but he's planned every detail of their voyage with the help of his personal valet, Brendan (Wallace Wolodarsky), down to side trips to spiritual temples to acquire some spiritual enlightenment, rankles his brothers. Peter is facing burdens of his own, impending fatherhood and the fear that his marriage to Alice (Camilla Rutherford) will end in divorce. Jack, a writer who specializes in thinly veiled autobiographical fiction, still hasn't gotten over his last, tangled romantic relationship.
"Another Andersonian piece of (Indian) exotica."
On the train, the brothers run into problems with the chief steward (Waris Ahluwalia), thanks to their drinking and drug sharing. Jack begins a casual relationship with the chief steward's female counterpart, Rita (Amara Karan), but for Jack it's just one more taste of superficial exoticism, as is every stop and purchase along their journey. Along with their oversized, cumbersome, ornate baggage inherited from their father (created by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton), the brothers donít make much progress, spiritually or emotionally, until that is, their immature behavior gets them kicked off the train. All along, however, Francis had a specific destination, physical as well as spiritual, and the brothers decide to continue their journey to the foot of the Himalayas and a meeting with a long-lost member of their family.
Co-written with Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman and, thus likely to have semi-autobiographical bits scattered throughout, The Darjeeling Limited has an unsurprising affection for its three characters, even if what compels them forward, the frayed bonds of brotherly love restored in a moment of transcendent reconciliation when, for once, the brothers are forced to step aside their egocentric concerns. Other characters, especially the women, donít fare as well, and Anderson doesnít seem capable of stepping outside Western conceptions and misconceptions about India. At first, though, it seems like Anderson is actually spoofing both Westerners going East for spiritual enlightenment and the literary sub-genre that periodically comes back into favor (e.g., Herman Hesse, W. Somerset Maugham), but unfortunately, that doesnít seem to be the case.
As over-stylized and over-production designed as his films have been, Anderson's obsessions make for a singularly engrossing, if no less flawed (sometimes deeply flawed) group of films. Anderson fills every frame with his, and by extension, his characters' obsessions, but he also makes sure we, the audience, know he's behind the camera, "directing" the camera in very obvious ways. To be fair, sometimes Anderson will indulge himself in an elegant camera move or set of camera moves, sometimes unrelated to the narrative but no less impressive. The Darjeeling Limited is no exception, but he also interjects several zooms and whip pans that indicate a director either bored or indifferent with his own film. It's hard to imagine why Anderson would otherwise indulge in 70s-era stylistic tricks.
Still, thereís much to like here, most of it aesthetic. And if Anderson doesnít quite get anywhere or say anything particularly profound, itís how he says it through his characters that makes The Darjeeling Limited easy to sit through, if no less problematic both for Andersonís depiction of India and Indian life and his stylistic obsessions that have become, over time, a hindrance for a talented filmmaker who seems stuck in a creative rut.Anderson produced a prequel, "Hotel Chevalier," that follows Jack, living in Paris before he ventures East. Jack gets an unexpected call and visit from his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman). Their interactions, simultaneously raw, honest, and cruel, give us insight into Jackís self-serving, egocentric personality and the (apparently) damaged women he falls for. "Hotel Chevalier" also stands on its own as a perfectly composed microcosm of the terminal stage of a failed romantic relationship. Unfortunately, "Hotel Chevalier" is only available online (itíll also pop up on the DVD), so catch it before you see "The Darjeeling Limited."
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originally posted: 10/05/07 16:13:31