Wednesday, October 03, 2007

"The Darjeeling Limited" -- * * * *

It's always taken me more than one viewing to decipher how I really feel about each of Wes Anderson's films, so it might not be the best idea to formulate a review of "The Darjeeling Limited" after watching it just once. But I was so remarkably satisfied, I dare say delighted, by every one of its 91 minutes on the first go round, that I'm certain future viewings will only further my appreciation of it.

Anderson's trademarks are all here: extraordinary attention to detail, offbeat characters with personal problems to overcome, use of Kumar Pallana, strategically utilized soundtrack, as well as little eccentric quirks (including a character afflicted with alopecia and repeated use of a perfume "Voltaire #6"). But there's also a startling sadness at work here, as well as a significantly smaller (almost claustrophobic) scale, and a propensity for symbolism unseen in his previous works.

In the first of many symbolic images to come, the film opens with an old man (Bill Murray) missing a train due to his being unwilling to part ways with his luggage, while being outrun by young, spry Peter Whitman (Adrien Brody) to the sounds of The Kinks' "This Time Tomorrow". The train, the Darjeeling Limited, carries Peter's two brothers, Francis (Owen Wilson) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman). It's been over a year since the brothers have seen each other-- at their father's funeral-- and the reunion has been orchestrated by Francis, who wants the three to take a "spiritual journey" to India and heal their past wounds.

Francis, who's become wealthy from his unspecified business, was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident and is heavily bandaged, short story writer Jack is heartbroken over his last girlfriend and keeps checking her answering machine messages, and Peter has no idea how to deal with his imminent baby ("I always expected to get divorced, so having a child really wasn't a part of my plan.") Francis' chief intention for the trip, which he's neglected to tell Jack or Peter, is for them to visit their estranged mother (Anjelica Huston), now working at an Indian convent.

One of the ingenious things Anderson does here is not explicitly tell us about the brothers' relationship in the past and what exactly caused the rift, nor exactly what the deal is with the mother. There are little hints dropped throughout that give us one vague idea or another, but it's not spelled out and we're left to make our own decisions about what led the brothers to where they are now. This is something that probably won't sit well with mainstream audiences, as is Anderson's shrugging off of such conventions as a substantial plot and conventional climax. "Darjeeling" is very much a character-driven affair, and it lives and dies by them. Thankfully, they're engaging characters that we feel for despite their flaws, and even with all the Anderson-esque quirk on top, their interactions are achingly recognizable.

There's an emotional resonance here that sneaks up on you, not with a big release moment but with character evolutions, and also a sensitivity towards the world outside of our central characters, a response to complaints some have leveled against Anderson in the past. With "Darjeeling," he maintains a mournful, elegiac tone that reflects his maturing sensibility, but he never abandons his signature dry humor. As usual, there will be more smiles and caustic chuckles than belly-laughs, but there's a notably inspired sequence of physical comedy involving fighting, running and a can of mace that's extremely reminiscent of the chase throughout the house near the end of "The Royal Tenenbaums."

The three actors have excellent chemistry together, and despite their disparity in looks, they're completely believable as brothers. Brody blends in remarkably well with the Anderson ensemble, showing a previously unutilized flair for comedy as well as bringing those Oscar-winning chops to the table. He, arguably, has the most complex character and makes Peter's shifts from warm to hurtful (he lies and says his father declared him his favorite son as he lay dying) effortless and believable. Schwartzman conveys a wounded innocence throughout, but his character is vastly enriched by the short, "Hotel Chevalier" (more on that in a bit).

Wilson had really begun to grate on my nerves in recent years with his "who, me?" shtick. He seems to play the same character in every movie since "Wedding Crashers," and it's a rather uninteresting, irritating character. It's only in Anderson's movies that he seems to step out of the box, really play real characters and seem to have his heart in what he's doing. As such, he's terrific here, and Francis has significantly more depth than Eli Cash or Ned Plimpton. Given his bandaged-up appearance, and revelations about the character late in the proceedings, it's nearly impossible to not have at least vague thoughts of Wilson's recent suicide attempt. However, it really doesn't overwhelm the content, and even if it does for you, it only casts a slightly hopeful shadow over the real-life situation.

Preceding "The Darjeeling Limited" at film festivals and critics' screenings, but NOT during its theatrical release, is the 13-minute-long "Hotel Chevalier," a two character piece featuring Schwartzman as Jack, and Natalie Portman as his ex-girlfriend. The short, which works incredibly well even on its own, takes place before "Darjeeling," and features Jack holed up in the titular hotel until his ex pays a surprise visit. The two exchange some heated words before screwing (yes, horndogs, Portman appears mostly nude, with the particulars carefully obscured), and than gazing upon the hotel room's view of Paris. In the closing credits of the short, it's billed as "Part 1 of The Darjeeling Limited," and rightfully so. This isn't just a short that enhances certain elements of the feature; not watching it will cause many a "huh?" during "Darjeeling," as well as negate an important character moment for Schwartzman. "Chevalier" is available for free download on iTunes, so I have to insist anyone who plans to see "Darjeeling" download and watch the short beforehand, but Fox Searchlight really should be attaching this to every print of "Darjeeling."

Though Anderson's films seem to be consistently divisive-- just as many seem to hate them as love them-- I don't think there's a filmmaker today who puts as much joy, originality and meticulous craft into his work. Every three years (the rate at which Anderson delivers a new work), the same old gang comes out screaming from the tallest tower "too clever/hip/smart for its own good," and the Wes fan base seems to grow smaller with each new outing.

Me? I find Anderson's output consistently wonderful, and in new and interesting ways each time around (the much-maligned "The Life Aquatic" was on my top 10 of 2004). So, while "Darjeeling" is possibly the auteur's least accessible film, it's also probably his most mature and humanistic effort to date.

"The Darjeeling Limited" is now playing exclusively in New York, and opens in additional cities on Friday. It expands to 90+ theatres on October 12th, 200+ on the 19th, and nationwide on the 26th.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great review. If anyone asks me to recommend a review for the film, I'd recommend this one.


p.s.- after all your pestering you didn't even write about the damn peacock feathers :P

7:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is Voltaire #6 a real perfume???

9:02 PM  
Blogger r.dro said...

No, Voltaire #6 is not a real perfume.

3:24 AM  

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