Judge Erich Asperschlager might be a snake, but he's also a charmer.
Our review of The Darjeeling Limited (Blu-Ray) Criterion Collection, published October 12th, 2010, is also available.
"Let's make an agreement: a) I want us to become brothers again like we used to be, and for us to find ourselves and bond with each other…b) I want us to make this trip a spiritual journey where each of us seeks the unknown and we learn about it…c) I want us to be completely open and say 'yes' to everything, even if it's shocking and painful. Can we agree to that?"
The Darjeeling Limited begins with a businessman (played by Bill Murray) and a young man in oversized sunglasses (played by Adrien Brody) racing to catch a train. The young man makes it; the businessman doesn't. With that, director Wes Anderson symbolically leaves his previous film—the subpar Murray-centric The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou—behind, and sets off on a new adventure.
Exotic, funny, and moving, Darjeeling is the story of three brothers on a journey across India—a plan concocted by the oldest to force them to reconnect after a year of not talking to each other. For better or worse, the film has everything you'd expect to find in an Anderson pic: quirky characters, clever writing, deliberate camerawork, bold colors, and a distinctive soundtrack. The director may not be reinventing his style, but he's certainly refining it; The Darjeeling Limited is the most mature of Anderson's films—and arguably his best to date.
Facts of the Case
Francis, Peter, and Jack Whitman haven't spoken to each other since their father's funeral a year ago. But when Francis (Owen Wilson, Cars) has a near-fatal motorcycle accident, he decides it's time for them to become brothers again. So he invites Peter (Adrien Brody, The Pianist) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman, I Heart Huckabees) on a train trip across India, in hopes that the physical and spiritual journey will heal their relationship. His carefully planned trip doesn't go as expected, however, thanks to lingering trust issues, non-prescription drugs, a pretty stewardess, a stolen belt, and a live cobra. Only after they get kicked off the train does Francis tell them about their real destination: the Indian convent where their long-absent mother (Anjelica Huston, The Addams Family) is living as a nun.
This DVD also includes the short film prologue The Hotel Chevalier, a day in Jack's pre-India life—holed up in a Paris hotel trying to escape the memory of the woman who broke his heart (Natalie Portman, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium).
Wes Anderson's last two films (The Life Aquatic and The Royal Tenenbaums) had big casts and sprawling stories. Though neither film is necessarily bad (Tenebaums, especially, rewards repeat viewings), they're not as focused as Rushmore—Anderson's breakthrough film, and one of my favorite movies of all time. The Darjeeling Limited—which Anderson co-wrote with Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola—proves he learned valuable lessons from those more ambitious projects. Instead of packing the narrative with bizarre characters, he focuses on a few key players. Instead of relying on outlandish special effects and fourth-wall-breaking meta moments, he lets India's inherent otherness be the set on which his characters play.
Of course, restraint is relative. This film is as "Anderson-y" as ever—He just found more organic ways to put his vision on screen. For example, instead of the huge cut-in-half boat he had built for The Life Aquatic, Anderson uses train windows to frame Darjeeling's complex compartment sequences.
The screenplay drips with all the metaphor and double meaning fans have come to expect from a Wes Anderson film. Besides his in-your-face camerawork, Anderson's dialogue is probably the biggest sticking point for detractors who like to describe his work as "precious" and "pretentious." Me? I dig it. There's rhythm and wordplay in the dialogue that just begs to be decoded—a "read between the lines" challenge that also applies to the film's use of overt symbolism. I'll give you two examples and let you find the rest for yourself: Francis, Peter, and Jack all use pieces of a monogrammed luggage set they inherited from their father. They literally carry around their father's baggage. And later in the film, in one of the very few wholly imagined sequences, Anderson tracks the camera through a series of cramped train compartments decorated to look like various interiors, each occupied by one or two of the film's supporting characters. The final car isn't a room; it's a darkened jungle with a barely visible man-eating tiger. Subtle? No. But it's the film's central message: We're all going to the same end stop on this train we call life, so why are we content to spend the journey shut away in separate "compartments"?
To no one's surprise, the actors are mostly members of Anderson's go-to troupe—led by mainstay Owen Wilson as Francis Whitman. A note to Wilson-haters: forget everything you think you know about the overexposed actor. Forget the cheesy romantic comedies. Forget the Hollywood buddy pics. Owen Wilson is never better than when he's in a Wes Anderson flick. He and Anderson grew up together in Texas, and worked together for many years, co-writing The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore, and 1996's Bottle Rocket—the indie production that launched their careers. In Darjeeling, Wilson is brilliant as the eldest Whitman, who wants so badly to force a reconciliation with his brothers he goes to the trouble of bringing a printer and laminating machine on their trip so his behind-the-scenes assistant can make (and laminate) daily itineraries for their mandatory spiritual journey. It's his best role yet in an Anderson film, and a refreshing return to form after playing the wooden Ned Zissou in The Life Aquatic.
Perhaps more exciting than Wilson's performance is the long-awaited homecoming of Rushmore-lead Jason Schwartzman. The kid who brought the über-precocious Max Fischer to life is back and all growed up. He plays Jack, a listless ex-patriate writer who's been living in Paris and nursing a broken heart. With his '70s-style long hair and mustache, Jack is what Max might have become had he decided to skip college in favor of a Blume Company-financed backpacking trip around Europe.
Newcomer Adrien Brody is a great addition to the Anderson acting stable. Though he's built his career playing serious roles, Darjeeling shows his aptitude for comedy. Exploiting Brody's gangly vulnerability, Anderson gives him the film's most challenging role. Not only does Peter struggle the most with the loss of their father (going so far as wearing his prescription sunglasses and using his old razor), he's about to become a father himself—making it vitally important that he fix his relationship with Francis and Jack, lest he repeat those mistakes with his wife and child.
Among the supporting cast are familiar faces like Anjelica Huston as Patricia Whitman (the mother who'd rather be a sister), and Bill Murray, who's onscreen just long enough to play "The Businessman." After the juicy roles both actors have had in Anderson's earlier films, it's strange to see them relegated to minor roles.
Music has always been hugely important in Anderson's films. Darjeeling marks the change to a focused style that began with The Life Aquatic's reliance on a single songwriter (David Bowie) instead of the classic-rock-grab-bag soundtracks of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. (Darjeeling is also notable for being the first Anderson film not to employ composer Mark Mothersbaugh.) Most of the music comes from the film's adopted nation—from Delhi-born folk singer Peter Sarstedt's beautiful "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)" to the clever use of Indian instrumental music originally composed for Satyajit Ray and Merchant-Ivory films from the 1960s. Of course, Anderson can't help but include a few British rock selections in the form of The Rolling Stones' "Play With Fire," and three songs by The Kinks circa 1970: "Powerman," "This Time Tomorrow" (Ray Davies' ode to the anonymity of constant travel), and "Strangers" (a song that captures the spirit of the film in its chorus: "Strangers on this road we are on/we are not two, we are one").
One nice thing about this Fox DVD release is the option to watch the film with or without automatically playing the 12-minute prologue The Hotel Chevalier before the feature. The short film caused quite a stir when it was released on the Internet last fall, thanks to a brief nude scene for Natalie Portman. Taken as a whole (without, ahem, fast-forwarding) Chevalier is an interesting bit of back story to the Jack Whitman story, with details that become more meaningful after watching the main film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Whether or not they deserved it, Anderson's past three films all got Criterion Collection releases—with vivid transfers, comprehensive extras, and custom cover art. They are objects of beauty that have places of honor in my DVD collection. I guess I'll just have to imagine how great The Darjeeling Limited's Criterion release would have been. This time around, fans have to slum it with a Fox release that has a not-as-nice transfer, barebones packaging (sans even a paper insert), and one lonely behind-the-scenes featurette. No deleted scenes. No director's commentary. No interviews. It's like a first class passenger being told three-quarters of the way through a flight that there's been a mistake and he needs to move—to the luggage compartment.
Wes Anderson films are always met with excitement from his fans and eye-rolling from his critics. What The Darjeeling Limited does best is showcase the director's strengths while minimizing his weaknesses. This film is Anderson at his best, and a welcome return to form after the widely panned The Life Aquatic. Wilson, Brody, and Schwartzman shine—separately, and together—as the most compelling Anderson trio since Fischer, Blume, and Cross. Their journey, across a physical and emotional landscape as familiar as it is foreign is touching, funny, and profound. This DVD's disappointing packaging and features might keep you from adding the disc to your permanent collection, but don't let it keep you from seeing this gem of a film.
How do you say "Not Guilty" in Hindi?
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• The Short Film "Hotel Chevalier"
Review content copyright © 2008 Erich Asperschlager; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.