06 November 2007


Wes Anderson's latest follows three brothers as they travel across India on a tripped-out train that gives the film its title. The Whitmans, Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman), haven't seen or spoken much to each other since their father's death one year ago; it's immediately apparent why they're estranged. Francis is controlling ringleader of the trio, crafting daily, hyper-detailed itineraries for his brothers (and even ordering food for them on occasion); Peter is a compulsive hoarder and borrower, claiming his father's artifacts for himself (much to Francis' chagrin); and sex-obsessed Jack just seems to be on his own planet much of the time. Naturally, the brothers' effort to reconcile, bond and achieve some sort of spiritual enlightenment doesn't go as Francis planned.

More than anything in Anderson's oeuvre, this film feels transitional. It incorporates many of the themes and stylistic traits he's used since BOTTLE ROCKET: the breakdown and patching up of familial relations, the intricate attention-to-detail (a train's contours prove a natural fit for this), whimsical sequences that add more to the emotional pull than the narrative. On the other hand, it also suggests Anderson is open to expanding his repertoire, if just a tiny bit. Instead of the usual Mark Mothersbaugh score, he supplements the classic rock soundtrack with music from Satyajit Ray's films. Also, when a truly tragic event occurs midway through, he gets the sparse, mournful tone exactly right with a depth of feeling that may surprise some of his critics.

His head half-covered in bandages, Wilson plays a role that seems tailor-made for him (and a bit unnerving, given his recent suicide attempt), as does Schwartzman (who co-wrote the screenplay with Anderson and Roman Coppola). However, Brody gives the revelatory performance here, so completely at ease as he lends complexity to both the film's humorous and sobering moments. The worst one can say about Anjelica Huston's brief, anticipated appearance toward the end is that she looks unexpectedly awful, although her presence still shines through enough to carry her scenes.

On my first viewing, I had some trouble with the film's shambling final third (and in particular, the clumsy, unnecessary extended flashback to the father's funeral). After a second time, I warmed up to most of it, finding it to be a charming (if shaggy) travelogue with a clever payoff that revisits most of the supporting cast. As a huge Anderson admirer, I'm sorry to say THE DARJEELING LIMITED as a whole lacks that empathetic resolve his previous films all had; changed they might be, at the end the Whitmans are barely less self-absorbed than they were before. Fortunately, the film also carries the promise of a mature, career-defining work lurking somewhere within—like the Whitmans, Anderson just needs to shed some of his baggage.

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