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Three brothers try to fix their fractured relationships by touring together on a train ride through India.
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Until he releases “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” later this year, “The Darjeeling Limited” is Wes Anderson’s most recent addition to his already impressive filmography.
People might wonder what it is about a filmmaker like Anderson that draws such undivided attention from a reviewer like me. In the past five weeks, I have observed and examined his entire repertoire with careful diligence and gleaming admiration. I praise “Bottle Rocket” for its sheer anarchistic glee, “Rushmore” for its dynamic romantic honesty, “The Royal Tenenbaums” for its brutal depiction of familial eccentricities, and “The Life Aquatic” for its subversive attempt of satirical documentary.
I respect Wes Anderson as a writer, a director, and although I do not personally know the man, a person. He seems to grasp what it is that the rest of Hollywood is missing: originality and enthusiastic cynicism. His characters are not only warm and vibrant as apparent from their eloquent dialogue but also in their manner of appearance and style. Just look at how Owen Wilson (so wrong in “Life Aquatic”, so right here in “Darjeeling”), as oldest brother Francis, commands his walking cane with arrogant grace measured with obsessive leadership.
Sure, you can argue that is the strength of the actor rather than the director. But in the case of Anderson, an obvious auteur in the overall depiction of his cinematic triumphs, I believe he deserves praise in every direction. His pictures have that same sense of rewarding familiarity: the tightly packed interiors; the well-balanced frame shot; his expert use of the comedic camera pan; and let’s not forget his unforgettable talent in composing a musical soundtrack.
Have you ever heard of anything more appropriate than The Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away” during the man vs. boy comedic montage in “Rushmore”? What about Mick Jagger crooning “Ruby Tuesday” as Luke Wilson reclines with his adopted sister after showing her his graphic suicide scars? As I have stated in my previous reviews, this man has a preternatural understanding for matching music to his wondrous fables.
But enough about his previous films. Let us concentrate on his latest escapade. “The Darjeeling Limited” is fluid and charming, an enjoyable breeze of a motion picture. In an age that concerns itself with convoluted plot structure and over-written characters, Anderson’s fifth picture about an emotionally wounded family presents itself more like a refreshing anecdote than a plot-driven caper.
But there are elements more pure and meaningful present in “The Darjeeling Limited” that his films have not explored before. Like the brothers who learn to embrace unexpected dimensions on their blueprinted map towards transcendentalism, Anderson and company are able to depict the sadness and sincerity of a bickering family during a traumatic vacation in ways that go beyond the typical screwball comedy or the tired romantic formula.
There is plenty of honest sentiment presented in “Darjeeling”. Adrien Brody plays the middle brother, Peter, the impulsive one. After discovering that Peter has stolen his belt, Francis hands him the belt back as a belated birthday present.
“I can’t accept this. It’s too valuable,” says Peter, while fastening his newly re-acquired belt inside of his pant loops.
“It’s from me and Jack,” Francis replies (Jack being the youngest brother, played by Jason Schwartzman, who also co-wrote the screenplay).
That dialogue works on so many levels: the acceptance of a present with typical refusal, the arrogance in name-dropping while gift giving, and the no-holds-barred banter between brothers. These are fundamental relationships that are comically exposed with unrestrained honesty. With subtle suggestion, you understand that tension is not created by merely having siblings, but by growing older with them.
In addition to exploring the tremendous fun amid destructive relationships, Anderson succeeds in giving the audience a remarkable portrayal of the Indian landscape and community. Unlike most production teams that focus primarily on the bargain system of Indian trade, “Darjeeling” goes deeper while depicting religion, celebration, recreation, and even death.
The film embraces the global tradition of completing full circle storylines. For example, the opening scene features Peter outracing a businessman (perhaps the representation of his deceased father?) to catch the Darjeeling. Similarly, the film ends with a shot of the three brothers jettisoning their luggage in order to catch their homeward bound train. The story structure offers a dual purpose: not only have we completed the cycle, we have witnessed the brothers Whitman abandon their material accessories in an immediate and hurried transcendental decision.
My personal highlight of the film features a show stopping flashback when the brothers are en route to their father’s funeral. Upon hearing that their mother will not be attending, Peter makes a sudden decision to pick up his father’s car from the mechanic’s shop. With acrobatic grace and skilled camera movements, the scene is a carnival moment in the Whitmans’ lives, ending with a moment of solid unity in the face of overwhelming hysteria.
For those interested, check out the behind-the-scenes documentary in the special features section. Production designer Mark Friedberg gives a thorough presentation of the train itself. During his educational tour, he guides us through the cabin, showing us the painstaking prop design and innovative camera devices necessary for the interior shots. In the dining cabin, for instance, Friedberg points out that every prop used for the scene was handmade by local Indian craftsmen, including the delicate fabric tablecloths. With sincere admiration, he rubs the material between his fingers in front of the camera lens to prove its authenticity. Like an excited child, he next wants to show us the impressive designs on the porcelain plates. So he grabs one and dumps its contents right on top of the tablecloth he so lovingly presented only a moment ago. The effect is unintentionally humorous, and so much the better for it.
Final recommendation: Make sure you view Anderson’s short film “Hotel Chevalier” as a companion piece. The brief storyline is not critical to the plot of “Darjeeling”, but Natalie Portman’s seduction of Jack Whitman is something to be treasured. In fact, it might be interesting to watch the short after the main feature to better understand their awkward flirtations to one another.