Rating: 4 stars
I am a great fan of Wes Anderson. The Royal Tenenbaums is probably my favourite movie ever, and his other movies aren’t too far behind. I say this now because I wish to give Anderson’s new piece, The Darjeeling Limited, a fair chance, and as impartial a review as possible.
The movie is concerned with three brothers – Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) in descending order of age – who have taken a trip to India at Francis’ request. His intention is to get to know each other, and themselves, a little better, with the ulterior motive of finding their estranged mother. The three have not seen each other in over a year, since their father’s funeral, and their mother has been absent for even longer than that. Darjeeling is principally concerned with the interactions between them as they venture ever farther out of their respective comfort zones, and tentatively begin to be family again.
The movie holds, quite naturally, many of Anderson’s signature storytelling ticks: a fractured family, with its – occasionally quirky – members at loggerheads, a meticulously chosen and well-deployed soundtrack, a dark, witty, occasionally metafictional sense of humour, even his familiar casting choices; if you were to watch nothing but Anderson’s five movies, you might be forgiven for thinking there were very few actors in the world. But its familiarity is not necessarily a drawback; there is something reassuringly deliberate in his direction, an artist assured in his voice and comfortable in his skin. This does lead to a few niggling problems.
Darjeeling has a carefree slight of hand that blurs the line between the film and the story behind its inception; the three brothers appear to be analogues for the movie’s three screenwriters, Anderson, Roman Coppola and star Jason Schwartzman. Jack’s repeated assertion that the characters in his short stories – themselves barely veiled avatars for him and his companions – are fictional carries a tint of the writers’ self-examination. This experience recurs as the characters contemplate what should happen in a dramatised version of their journey; Jack’s portable mp3 player that often provides the movie’s soundtrack seems cheekily self-referential, as does the movie’s – admittedly funny – opening sequence in which Anderson mainstay Bill Murray misses the train (the eponymous Darjeeling Limited) and is overtaken by Adrien Brody, appearing in his first Anderson flick. The sequence works perfectly well in its own right, but functions more effectively for those with a prior familiarity with Anderson’s work. The luggage that operates almost exclusively on the metaphorical level often works as an intrusive if amusing sight gag at several occasions, with a somewhat predictable payoff. This sense of self-awareness arguably holds at arm’s length the emotional import of the film’s more powerful scenes.
None of the above is unfiltered criticism, however, and The Darjeeling Limited has much to commend it. Brody was an absolute joy to watch, lending the offhand, but good-hearted Peter a real sense of pathos, and proving beyond any reasonable doubt his potential as a comic actor, given a script of such quality. Schwartzman gives a vulnerable coolness to little brother Jack, bouncing from one lover to the next without fulfilment, and it is Jack who provides one of the movie’s most effective payoffs, beginning with the ostensibly superfluous short film Hotel Chevalier, reaching completion with less than ten minutes from the close. In one line Anderson & co. give an entire piece of work definition and structure, a skilful turn that is worth waiting the guts of a feature to encounter. Owen Wilson is effective if unspectacular as Francis, given fairly limited scope in his role as a surrogate father/mother to his brothers, and he plays his part as well as could be expected. The analogy between Francis’ suicide attempt and that of Wilson himself should have no bearing on criticism of the film, even one where fiction and reality merge so repeatedly. Anjelica Huston’s brief appearance as the Patricia, the boys’ mother, is memorable, and provides an emotional grounding in a film that so often seems at a loss for direction. The plot, like the journey itself, is a meandering, affecting wander through the lives of a few highly empathetic characters. Amara Khan, Waris Ahluwalia and Irfan Khan provide welcome depth in a uniformly strong supporting cast.
The Darjeeling Limited may suffer from comparison to Anderson’s other work, particularly Rushmore and the aforementioned Tenenbaums, but this is more down to an embarrassment of riches than any technical frailty. It is arguably a step up from the middling Life Aquatic, and a worthy addition to his already astounding portfolio.