There are those critics who argue that Wes Anderson’s formal, anti-realistic style is immature, emotionally distancing, and fundamentally inferior to the gritty naturalism that we all know defines great drama. These people are not only wrong, they are narrow-minded snobs (inferior to normal snobs who will at least hate things equally in all genres) who seek to reduce the diversity of approaches to the cinema as art. Sorry, I’ve wanted to get that off my chest ever since LIFE AQUATIC. Anyway. THE DARJEELING LIMITED is Anderson’s latest, a fun odyssey through India that, like so many such odysseys, is really about the characters discovering themselves, but at least has the decency to laugh at the idea.
The trip is taken by three brothers, Peter (Adrien Brody), Jack (Jason Schwartzman), and Francis (Owen Wilson), the instigator, who plans the excursion after suffering a motorcycle crash (he spends more or less the entire film with his head in bandages.) He’s written up a full itinerary, booked passage on the titular rail line through the country, and has even hired a consultant to help manage things. But, needless to say, neither of the other brothers are wholly on board with his plans, and everyone’s got their emotional damage to work through. Peter is using the trip to spend some time away from his very pregnant wife, whom he loves, basically, but whose condition is something he never expected to deal with because he thought they’d be divorced by now. Jack, a writer, has been living in hotels for some time and is trying to break away from his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman.) We get a glimpse of their relationship in the short film HOTEL CHEVALIER which immediately precedes this one in release prints- it’s entertaining in and of itself, but it’s mostly of a piece with this film. They’re all still suffering the aftershocks of their father’s death, and Francis eventually reveals an end-goal of sorts for the voyage- they’re off to see their mother, who lives in a mission somewhere near Nepal, and who they haven’t seen since before dad died.
From the start, Francis is pitching this as a spiritual journey, and is intent that all three find themselves and each other. This is, of course, the heart of many such road movies whether they admit it or not, and we think we know what to expect from it. But Francis’ plans are a little ridiculous, meticulously written and even laminated. Jack and Peter seem reluctant to even be there, and respectively set about hitting on a stewardess (Amara Karan) and buying a poisonous snake, neither activity endearing them to the chief steward (Waris Ahluwalia). All three have brought along an impressive amount of luggage, and their shared compartment becomes a little fortress against the environment that’s supposed to change them. Of course, the reality of India often intrudes on Francis’ goal of a mystic retreat- there are temples, yes, but also noisy markets and shoe thieves and old German ladies. Anderson is clearly after the messy reality of India rather than the Bollywood ideal, and his imagery is appropriately cluttered, if still beautiful in its way.
At the same time, the film doesn’t reject the idea of the spiritual journey altogether. The brothers ever so slowly become introspective, realize the problems they’re running from and what they have to deal with. It’s just that their path ends up more twisted and confusing than anyone
can predict, and nobody’s quite sure where or when the journey will stop. There are moments of tragedy and enlightenment, and there are revealing flashbacks, and an almost inevitable fistfight. It’s still a road movie at heart, it’s just a very messy one. It’s almost necessary that the film start wandering a bit, and though I’m not entirely sure about the final act it’s of a piece with what’s gone before. There are just a couple of threads that maybe could have been explored more.
Still, this is never a less than enjoyable picture, and it has a warm and inviting atmosphere even while dealing with distinctly unhappy people. Anderson’s love of artifice and color and, well, whimsy is evident throughout, but so is a more honest engagement with the land and with his characters. I’m still not entirely sure what grade to give this film, and whatever I’ve posted below is likely a quick decision. But it’s definitely another great picture from Anderson, and like his other films will be worth revisiting.
Written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, and Jason Schwartzman
Directed by Wes Anderson