Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited (***1/2)

Written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, & Jason Schwartzman
Directed by Wes Anderson


The Darjeeling Limited is the tale of three overbearing brothers who reunite after a year of not seeing each other, and decide to embark on a spiritual journey throughout the religious temples of India. That plot summary in itself is a pretty good display of how off-kilter this film is for it’s entire 91 minutes. That said, this film is a very heartfelt, very funny movie about three people who want to be good people, and want to understand the things that happen in life. Unfortunately, they weren’t built that way.

When Francis (Owen Wilson) crashes his motorcycle into a mountain, his face is left covered in heavy bandages, looking like a low-budget Halloween costume. This life-altering experience leaves him to call upon his two brothers: Peter (Adrien Brody), a brooding fellow who seems destined to divorce his wife until he finds out she is pregnant, and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) an articulate writer, who’s been recently crushed by an ex-girlfriend, and occasionally calls her messaging service to check her messages. These three need help, and we find that out soon, as we watch them gobble down various amounts of muscle relaxers and cough medicine.

Francis wants the brothers to reconvene on a train, called The Darjeeling Limited, where Francis, along with his assistant Brendan (Walace Wolodarsky) make daily laminated itineraries with the planned trips and stops during the day. Francis seems controlling, constantly asking the brothers to settle on “agreements” such as Jack not being allowed to call his ex’s messaging service without letting the other two know first. Peter is openly resentful to Francis’ authoritative manner, even going as far as to steal his belt. Jack writes short stories documenting their half-baked plans to pick up their father’s car from a dealership the day of his funeral.

The movie’s plot cannot be explained much more than that, because that’s all it is. They run into little adventures--Jack has a small affair with the train’s stewardess, Rita (Amara Karan); Peter buys a poisonous snake--but essentially the movie does not move in any one, organized direction. There was a smart, deadpan style Wes Anderson created in his two great films Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, and then he sort of bent it with his film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The Darjeeling Limited seems to bend, then fix itself, and then shatter into a million pieces. The movie noodles around ideas of a plot, but all we are left with are three disallusioned boys in the bodies of men.

In a way, that is what makes this film so good. There is no target that needs to be hit. Take the make of train. Much like the mansion-home in Tenenbaums or the submarine/shrimping ship in Life Aquatic, the train is a piece of setting that is so colorful, but disjointed-- in a way, like the characters of the films, themselves. There’s no reason for any place to mismatch so many colors, but it seems like the brothers could not have ridden on any other train. That said, halfway through the film, the three are kicked off the train when they find Peter’s snake. The train leaves, and it is no longer part of the movie. The brothers are left to walk endlessly throughout the exotic country with their mountain of Louis-Vutton luggage.

Francis throws one surprise into the trip for the other two brothers: the trip will end with them meeting their mother whom they haven’t seen in years. Their mother (Anjelica Huston) has since become a missionary in an impoverished area of India. This is probably the most important, searching moment of the film. We see what the brothers have been looking for their entire lives. She can’t leave this place which is thousands of miles away from home, because the people need her. “What about us?” Jack asks hopelessly, in response. She doesn’t have an answer for them, and she disappears from them the next morning.

Many might get confused and say something along the lines of “this film doesn’t have a plot” or a “point”, but I think that is what makes the film magical. There are no amazing revelations, just many moments of various meanderings. Even the way the brothers approach the vast land of India, they are essentially tourists, but it doesn’t stop them from having long, confessing conversations in front of a stranger reading a newspaper next to them, or calling young Indian kids playing on the dangerous riverbank “assholes”. “I love the smell of this country,” Peter says, “It’s kind of spicy”. Nothing is meant to connect. There are times when we ask ourselves what exactly is going on, but we feel safe in the company of the actors and filmmakers.

Wilson and Schwartzman are experts within Wes Anderson’s broad dialogue and comedic timing, and Brody fits in nicely as well. There's something exceptionally piercing about the characters in Anderson films. They seem to stand there, doing nothing, but blurting out statements in monotone voices. Then suddenly, they have an explosion. The three actors especially embody Anderson’s tactic, and have no problems indulging in the “noodling” that is required for the roles.

The movie is an adventure--sometimes we feel like we’re the ones who are chugging down the cough syrup and pain medicine. It is a brave movie. With a shipload of young filmmakers trying so hard to be politically incorrect, I guess this is what it takes to be anti-establishment: just take the system and twist and turn until you have a story so convoluted and deceptive, maybe someone someday will call it art. I’ll give it a shot: This film is art.

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