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Our review of The Darjeeling Limited, published March 17th, 2008, is also available.
"Maybe we could express ourselves more fully if we say it without words."
Facts of the Case
The Darjeeling Limited tells the story of three brothers who have decided to take a soul-searching trip to India. The trip was organized by Francis (Owen Wilson, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), the self-appointed leader of the group whose has is wrapped in elaborate bandages. The brothers have a somewhat troubled relationship, and Peter (Adrien Brody, The Pianist) doesn't particularly want to be there. This may have something to do with the fact that his first child is going to be born in six weeks. The youngest brother, Jack (Jason Schwartzman, Bored to Death), is attempting to cope with a recently shattered romantic relationship. His coping method involves frequently calling to check the messages on his ex-girlfriend's answering machine.
The brothers travel across India on The Darjeeling Limited, a wonderful train if ever there was one. They take quite a few stops along the way, some planned, most unplanned, and have a number of surprising experiences in a wide array of locations. As the journey continues, old wounds are re-opened, secrets are revealed and the brothers find themselves being driven into rather uncomfortable personal territory.
If you go to the movies as often as I do, it can be easy to grow cynical about the current state of Hollywood. We're seeing so many films made by committee, produced in as routine and obvious a manner as possible. The characters are frequently composites of other characters we've all ready seen too many times, and thus, we don't care about them. They're merely pawns in the service of the plot, and the plot is merely a pawn in the service of action or comedy, and the action or comedy is recycled from previously successful formulas that weren't all that special to begin with. This discouraging state is by no means that primary reason that I treasure a director like Wes Anderson, but it certainly accentuates his qualities.
To me, Anderson represents a certain pinnacle of independent filmmaking. He certainly breaks the generic rules of the Hollywood system, but he does so in a manner that best serves his film, not in a manner that best serves some sort of aimless personal revolution. Too many indie directors are so intent on being anti-Hollywood that they alienate audiences by making films that refuse to be satisfying on any fundamental level. Anderson frequently beats the expensive studio flicks at their own game. His films are better-looking and feature stronger art design than most big-budget films, and his movies feature more laughs than most mainstream comedies. Yet at the same time, he gives us entirely uncompromised, three-dimensional characters that are given the space they need to breathe, move, and come to life. In Anderson's films, the characters create the story rather than tag along with it.
The Darjeeling Limited certainly cares quite deeply about its characters. Have you seen Anderson's splendid The Royal Tenenbaums? If you appreciated that film's spirit of understanding humor laced with carefully-measured sprinklings of satire, melancholy and heartbreak, you'll find an even more personal and potent version of it in this film.
Some viewers tend to have trouble warming up to Anderson's distinct style, and at a glance The Darjeeling Limited may seem frustratingly episodic and unfocused. If it feels that way, look a little closer. The seemingly meaningless, rambling diversions are quite revealing…you just have to take a peek below the surface at what is really going on. This film is not so much concerned about getting from point A to point B in the plot as it is about getting its characters where they need to go emotionally.
If you can avoid second-guessing the film's unexpected decisions and simply trust Anderson with your time, you'll discover a lovely blend of wise observation, unpredictable humor, and subtle drama. The characters talk a lot, but the movie offers most of its most potent observations in surprising, unspoken ways. The film is particularly fond of employing symbolism, sometimes obvious, sometimes hidden, but almost always perfectly appropriate. Though there are plenty of laughs in the movie, I would be a little hesitant to describe The Darjeeling Limited as a comedy. It was Woody Allen who penned the line, "comedy is tragedy plus time." This is a film that hangs ever-so-delicately on that thin wire that divides the two drastically different areas. Many of the film's funniest scenes have a river of hurt and sadness running beneath them.
Like almost everyone else, I've certainly had a generous portion of ups and downs in my life thus far. As time has passed, I've felt more and more that comedy and tragedy are absolutely inseparable. Perhaps Anderson feels the same way…not only because his films blend the two so expertly, but because of the casting in his films. It was Anderson who first unearthed Bill Murray's remarkable potential as a dramatic actor in Rushmore. He has drawn out several remarkable introspective and personal performances from the usually less-interesting Owen Wilson. Ben Stiller gave one of his strongest performances in The Royal Tenenbaums. I can't know for sure, but I suspect that Anderson looked at the characteristics of each of these actors and thought, "Wouldn't it be interesting to discover what drives this person to behave this way?"
A number of Anderson veterans populate the case of The Darjeeling Limited. Owen Wilson gives another superb performance, and demonstrates why he is an infinitely more interesting actor when he steps outside the mainstream. Jason Schwartzman, who aced a career-launching turn in Rushmore, makes his second appearance in an Anderson film (his third was a voice-over role in Fantastic Mr. Fox) with a performance that beautifully showcases Schwartzman's gift for playing wounded-yet-earnest characters. Anjelica Huston has a very revealing scene towards the end of the film, and Bill Murray shows up in an early moment that I think is a bit of an in-joke for Anderson fans. New to the Anderson crew is Adrien Brody, who fits in quite well. Though the actor has taken on entirely too many bad roles in the years following his Oscar win, this is a role that Brody seems comfortable in. He offers a persuasive piece of acting that is appealingly natural.
The Darjeeling Limited arrives on Blu-ray sporting a lovely 1080p/2.40:1 AVC-encoded transfer. Though slightly less crammed with visual delights than something like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou or Fantastic Mr. Fox, there's still an overload of little details to soak in that might have easily been overlooked in standard-def. The film is also immensely colorful, with lots of bright, cheerful splashes of blue, orange, yellow and red all over the place. The image really pops off the screen at times, and the level of depth is impressive throughout. The audio is solid as well, with an emphasis being placed on Anderson's typically eclectic soundtrack (everything from old Indian film music instrumentals to The Kinks is employed). Dialogue is clean and clear, while the minimal sound design is quite well-mixed.
Now, before we dig into the bulk of the extras, it's important to note one in particular: A short film entitled Hotel Chevalier. The short stars Jason Schwartzman (playing the same character) and Natalie Portman, and it is excellent on its own terms. More important, it adds a great deal to The Darjeeling Limited, bringing an extra level of insight and humor to the proceedings. Why isn't it a piece of the actual film? Hard to say for sure, but Anderson apparently feels that it somehow works better as a separate companion. The tone is slightly different, and so is the location, so I suppose it wouldn't exactly fit with most of The Darjeeling Limited. However, it does provide the audience with some crucial information that will make their experience of The Darjeeling Limited a richer and more informed one. Criterion's release provides the option to watch the film with or without the short film included at the beginning, but I definitely recommend the former option.
As for the rest, the supplements kick off with a low-key but engaging commentary from Anderson and co-writers Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman. Next up a 40-minute documentary directed by Barry Braverman, which mostly consists of on-set footage, followed by a terrific 20-minute chat between Anderson and director James Ivory on the music used in the film (a lot of Merchant-Ivory selections are included on the soundtrack). Matt Zoller Seitz turns in a compelling 12-minute visual essay on the film; an audio piece set to stills and film clips. Next is an assortment of tiny tidbits: 3 minutes of deleted scenes, a 2-minute clip of Anderson, Coppola, and Schwartzman working on the screenplay, one of the bit player's audition tapes, a very clever Wes Anderson American Express commercial, a young kid's speech about India, a look at the assorted trophies won by the film, some still galleries and a trailer. Plus, you get the usual Criterion booklet (this time presented in a slightly annoying fold-out format) with an essay by Richard Brody and illustrations by Eric Chase Anderson.
One of Wes Anderson's most personal and affecting films gets a terrific hi-def release from Criterion. Highly recommended.
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