Love Is Blind, and You Soon Will Find You're Just a Boy Again
The Darjeeling Limited / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | October 25, 2007 | Comments ()
It’s surely no coincidence that one of the things that first drew Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson together was the fact that they are both the middle children of three brothers. The heavy mantle of brotherhood is a theme that winds its way through Anderson’s c.v. with as much world-weary force as his complex patriarchal issues and his desire to use his heroes’ outcast status as a means for their transformation into a uniting force for their broken families. Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tenenbaums had Owen Wilson playing with/against brother Luke, but the casting makes even more sense and takes on a greater weight when you realize that Anderson isn’t just using them because they’re both talented comedic actors but because their real-life brotherhood is the very thing Anderson keeps trying to capture. Anderson’s films are always poignant and deeply personal, acts of exorcism that help him sort out what it is to be a man among brothers. But as he’s grown more obsessed with unearthing the fraternal bond, Anderson has also grown steadily more stylized, creating ornately detailed films in hypeerrealistic versions of the real world: Witness the transition from Bottle Rocket (suburban Dallas and Houston) to Rushmore (a private school, again in Texas) to The Royal Tenenbaums (a dark fantasy version of New York) to The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (a series of dioramas masquerading as sets masquerading as reality). The two things are connected for Anderson: The deeper he gets into his own fetishistically realized world, the closer he comes to finally finding his way home again. In growing as a man, he’s becoming the ultimate boy.
All that to say: The Darjeeling Limited is a smart, nimble film, swinging from subtle wit to outright hilarity to devastating loss to the undying thing in all of us that keeps getting back up and walking with the pain life keeps offering. It’s funny, but not jokey; sad, but not despondent; hopeful, but not oblivious. After the slight misstep of The Life Aquatic, where Anderson’s gorgeous production attempted to hide a generally worthless and completely unlikable protagonist, Anderson returns to form by offering a moving story about the intricate chemistry between a set of three brothers — of course — that’s buoyant in its depiction of the main characters and almost sweeping in its examination of the human condition. The Darjeeling Limited might not be the best film Anderson’s done, but it’s certainly the grandest. Anderson has retreated far enough into his dreamworld that he’s come out the other side, back into reality, pulling with him everything he learned and saw along the way.
The film opens with a brief clip from Anderson’s Hotel Chevalier, a short film that serves as a prequel to The Darjeeling Limited but isn’t (entirely) necessary to understanding and enjoying the main story. It’s not that some of the film’s more direct references to the short don’t work on their own, merely that the added layer of resonance won’t be there. The short and the feature are both introduced with giant yellow text, set in the same big Futura typeface that’s one of Anderson’s hallmarks and the reinforcement of Anderson’s body of work as just that: a collection of individual chapters of similar design and style, all revolving around common themes and motifs. Even the title of the film itself is presented as an actual physical thing, in this case a sign on the back of a train — the Darjeeling Limited — pulling out of a station in India. Just as Rushmore was a sign on a gate, The Royal Tenenbaums was a book cover, and The Life Aquatic was a film strip, so too is the title of The Darjeeling Limited offered in a way that grounds it in weird reality while at the same time feeling like well-designed and -incorporated scenery. Peter Whitman (Adrien Brody) hops the Darjeeling Limited just as it’s making its way out of the station and across the desert. He eventually makes his way to his compartment and finds his brother, Jack (Jason Schwartzman), asleep but waiting for him. The men have been summoned to India by the third brother, Francis (Owen Wilson), who appears in the cabin wearing several bandages on his face that he later explains are the result of running his motorcycle into the side of a hill. Francis wants them to make a spiritual trek across India and to “be brothers like we used to be.” The brothers haven’t really spoken since their father’s funeral a year ago, and in addition to uniting them again, Francis is also secretly planning on taking them all to see their mother, who’s become a nun in the past year and was absent from their father’s funeral. And just to make sure you get Anderson’s point: The brothers are all using their father’s old luggage, tagged with his initials and featuring discreet patterns of wildlife illustrations. They are literally carrying around the memory of their father like baggage.
As the brothers travel through the desert, Anderson allows their distinct personalities to play off each other: Francis, the maternal one who’s always keeping everyone organized and planned; Peter, the moody one most affected by their father’s death; and Jack, a confused lothario who’d rather be left out of his family. The man-boys interact with the assumed comfort and occasional vulnerability of siblings that Anderson knows firsthand, and Brody, Wilson, and Schwartzman infuse the scenes with a real electricity, acting as foolish and selfish and loving as do real brothers.
I’m loath to go into greater detail about the brothers’ journey through the country because it’s their journey, as much as their destination, that shapes their gradually softening relationships and winds up pulling them together. Anderson co-wrote the script with Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, Schwartzman’s cousin, and the result is his most enjoyable tale since The Royal Tenenbaums. The jokes are sly and witty, flowing forth so easily and so firmly rooted in the specific characters that Anderson makes writing look like what it never is: Easy. I found myself often watching the action with an easy grin, content to be in the presence of such an assured, gifted filmmaker, whose humor and pathos blend to create something sweet, and sad, and wonderfully different.
In addition to Schwartzman and longtime collaborator Wilson, the rest of The Darjeeling Limited also unfolds with the same revolving door of actors and styles as Anderon’s work. The pleasantly clashing blue and yellow paint on the Darjeeling Limited can’t help but recall the color scheme of The Life Aquatic, and it’s of course no surprise that Jack’s Hotel Chevalier bathrobe is the precise shade of goldenrod used in the train’s signage. The chief steward on the train is played by Waris Ahluwalia, who also co-starred in The Life Aquatic, and Kumar Pallana — a favorite character actor from Anderson’s first three films — can be spotted on the train as well, as much a nod to fans as it is Anderson’s natural way of doing business.
Like Anderson’s heroes, Francis is working hard to uncover a version of his past that may have never even existed: In a prolonged flashback sequence late in the film dealing with their father’s funeral, the brothers appear to have the same basic dynamic as they will on their Indian trip. It’s possible they were never “brothers like (they) used to be,” but that doesn’t stop Francis from wanting to knit them together again. Anderson’s men are always trying to be something better than what they turned out to be, to walk their mistakes back before it’s too late, and to figure out just what the meaning of their lives might be. For Max Fischer, it was going to Rushmore Academy; for the brothers Whitman, it’s shaking the dust of their old lives from their feet and diving headfirst into personal redemption in the Indian desert. And for Anderson, it’s working at the convergence of where he came from and where he wants to go. When Jack, an aspiring writer, shares some of his short stories with his brothers, they compliment him on how well he portrays them all. Jack protests, “The characters are all fictional,” but he’s just fooling himself, and eventually comes to accept this. He’s been writing this whole time about his brothers, and realizes that this is a good thing, maybe the best thing he can do. Anderson would understand.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.