The Darjeeling Limited
Filmmaker Wes Anderson is something of a cinematic aberration — liking his films is not a prerequisite for admiring or even adoring his quirky talent.
Anderson’s films appear technically simple, despite the fact that they are numbingly intricate and complex. His musical soundtracks, drawing on such British Invasion favorites as The Kinks and The Who, are some of the most whimsical and enjoyable ever compiled. He is personally responsible for re-shaping the on-the-outs Bill Murray into the comic genius we know him as today, and introduced the world to Owen Wilson, easily one of the funniest men alive. Best of all, Anderson likes long takes and has an exquisite sense of spatial balance, framing his stories in such a way that he always maintains a harmonious equilibrium between his characters and their environments.
Oh that he could only achieve the same sort of balance in his scripts.
The Darjeeling Limited focuses on three estranged brothers, Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) who have not seen each other since their father’s funeral more than a year earlier. Francis, the eldest, has bamboozled his brothers into a train ride across India for a reason only he knows. He orders his siblings around like an overzealous parent and dictates their every move. He has laminated itineraries made up that account for every minute of every day, paying close attention to stops in towns with religious sites. Francis wants their journey together to be one of spiritual enlightenment, even though some distraction — usually bickering amongst themselves — always aborts their well-intentioned plans.
In reality, the men are not running toward anything but away from everything. Francis barely survived a horrific suicide attempt (ironically mirroring Owen’s recent troubles) and has the scars to prove it. Peter is an expectant father in an unhappy marriage who is rarely seen out of his father’s prescription glasses even though they give him terrible migraines. And Jack is in the middle of an imploding relationship. (The Darjeeling Limited actually begins online with a free iTunes download of the short film Hotel Chevalier, which gives a bit more back-story to Jack and his lost love, Natalie Portman). Although Francis initiated the trip as a means of reconnecting with their mother, (Anjelica Huston), whom we meet at the film’s twilight, it turns out she is even more adept at running away than her sons.
The Darjeeling Limited road trip covers a lot of literal and metaphorical ground. Of all Anderson’s films, this one seems to have the most to say, and stretches even Anderson’s porous definition of comedy. At its heart, this is a story of emotional healing, reconciliation and finding a way to move beyond unreconciled tragedy. While the trio of brothers begin their journey in the claustrophobic confines of the train, loathing every minute spent with each other, they end the film having finally discovered how to stop running away from their problems and, in a beautiful, if overt, gesture, let go of the baggage that has been weighing them down.
So it comes as some surprise that, while technically and thematically there's a lot in The Darjeeling Limited to arrest the attention, emotionally, the film is hollow. Though tragedies — both large and small — occur over the course of the film, we remain mostly unmoved. Try as we might, we simply cannot connect with any of the characters. Worse than remaining clinical and detached, they are generally unlikable and therefore inaccessible.
The Darjeeling Limited is never boring — there’s always something interesting to watch. It is easily Anderson’s most technically ambitious film to date and it shows. His camera glides back and forth, arcs on invisible pivots and crash zooms like it’s 1975. His sense of color, here powder blues and sunflower yellows, is intoxicating. His usual soundtrack is more limited than usual, but the songs that are included croon in your head long after you’ve left the theater.
For me, Anderson’s films have been a series of diminishing returns after the delightful Rushmore. I walk into each new screening energized and hopeful and inevitably walk out disappointed and unmoved. Sure, I know I’ve seen something unique and, at times, even brilliant, but it is never more than surface manipulation. I’m hypnotized, even though I’m rarely enjoying myself. Wes Anderson just may be the biggest style over substance offender working today. Like all of his films, The Darjeeling Limited is easy to admire but hard to like.