A dazzling display of the talents of Wes Anderson. Inspired by a screening of Jean Renoir’s The River with Martin Scorsese and the works of Satyajit Ray and co-written by Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, The Darjeeling Limited is the tale of three brothers who reunite about a year after their father’s death in order to reconnect with each other, reunite with their absent mother and quest to find spiritual enlightenment. It’s also a masterclass in screwball comedy, sibling rivalry and brilliant character study.
The film technically opens with the very European short “Hotel Chevalier” in which we are first introduced to one of the three titular brothers, Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and his tumultuous relationship with his ex (played by Natalie Portman) as they reunite in a French hotel room. Their relationship recalls a little Last Tango in Paris a little Bad Timing as they interrogate each other on their recent paths (he has been residing at the hotel for some time, she appears with mysterious bruises on her body). The short sucks you in with their mysterious relationship and leaves one pondering many questions. I often wonder what the correlation is between Jack wearing a full suit but bare feet and (in the final shot) his ex fully nude but wearing socks. The short features many items which will appear prominently in the feature film including a briefcase marked with the initials J.L.W., an expensive ladies’ perfume and Peter Sarstedt’s “Where Do You Go To My Lovely” cued up on Jack’s iPod. The short climaxes with one of my favorite Wes Anderson moments to date. His signature slow motion shot, this one involving a nude Natalie Portman perched against an armoire as Jack crosses the room and covers her with a yellow bathrobe.
The real feature kicks off with a marvelous Wes Anderson bang. A taxicab rushes in and out of traffic. Its nervous passenger is an American businessman (Bill Murray in a nearly wordless performance). In a hilarious display of physical comedy and Murray’s prowess we watch him desperately attempt to catch a departing train and as he fails to reach the train’s rear entrance the film slow mos into Adrien Brody running along side of him and leaping aboard. He looks back, removes his sunglasses and gives a long look at the middle-aged, well-dressed and now stranded stranger. A reminiscence of his father? More on this to come.
Once aboard the train, The Darjeeling Limited, we witness the reunion of Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Schwartzman) and a brilliant chemistry of three male leads is quickly revealed. Trivia: The names of the brothers are taken from Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and Jack Nicholson. We quickly learn that its been some time since these three were together: Francis sports a head bandage from a motorcycle accident, Peter has a child on the way and Jack has been living in Europe hiding from his past for nearly a year. Francis has a plan to talk to each other “like they used to” and travel India in search of a spiritual experience. Secretly he also plans to track down their mother (Anjelica Huston) who has moved to a convent somewhere in the Himalayas.
The first half of the film is absolute hilarity. The brothers clash over everything from Francis’ fake tooth, to the length of Jack’s short stories to Peter’s wearing of their father’s glasses. The quest for enlightenment falls apart in a series of events as the train gets lost (“How can a train be lost, its on rails?”), a local shoeshine boy steals one of Francis’ designer shoes, and Jack pursues the girlfriend of the train’s chief steward. The combination of non-prescription Indian painkillers, a poisonous snake and a physical fight between brothers gets the trio kicked off the train and stranded in the desert. It is at the seeming end of their relationship that their true journey begins.
Despite all of Francis’ planning and attempts to get a spiritual connection with his siblings it is not the beautiful temples of India that bring the trio together but real life itself. A horrific incident at a river brings the boys into the heart of a small Indian village and for the first time they get the connection they’ve been looking for. The reluctant father-to-be Peter is emotionally tested and the problems between the three begin to fade away. Immediately following a slow motion take of the newly bonded threesome we see a brilliant flashback of the family just before their father’s funeral that expertly displays what separated them in the first place. Its a perfectly choreographed segment and placed elegantly within the film, giving this viewer a deeper emotional response.
Anyone who writes off Wes Anderson’s films as style over substance is pure bullshit. First off anyone who complains about Anderson’s signature camera moves, framing, color palette or quirky dialogue being too similar or typical to his other films is missing the point of being a filmmaker. To direct is to be an artist and to be an artist is to have your own style. To be a great director you must have a style that is unique to you, a way of standing out from all other films. When you watch a Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg film you KNOW your watching a Tarantino or Scorsese or Spielberg film. If it wasn’t for Scorsese’s dolly shots or Spielberg’s lens flares or various other trademarks then every movie and its director would look the same. And yes Anderson pays a lot of attention to detail: the train was built specifically for the production, each plate or silverware on board is hand crafted, each wall paper designed with hand painted animal designs. But the work of cinematographer Robert Yeoman, production designer Mark Friedberg, art director Aradhana Seth and original artist Eric Chase Anderson would be all for nothing if the film wasn’t packed with lovingly written and fully fleshed out characters. If Anderson and his cronies weren’t such masters at dialogue, character development and the emotional beats of a scene and where to hit them. But they are. And if you don’t get the references to Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus and Satyajit Ray’s ‘Bengal Lancer’ in the film’s climax then your just not operating on the same plane that Wes Anderson and I are.