Wes Anderson's THE DARJEELING LIMITED *** out of ****
Wes Anderson's new movie THE DARJEELING LIMITED is a fun little piffle of a movie. Funny, quirky, stylish, and occasionally deep (I think...), THE DARJEELING LIMITED is a spiritual road-trip of a movie that will cater to fans of Anderson's brand of smug humor and immaculate production design. As a filmmaker, I'm begining to wonder if Anderson has anything new to say. All of his films--BOTTLE ROCKET, RUSHMORE, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, THE LIFE AQUATIC, and THE DARJEELING LIMITED--exsist in a hermetically-sealed fantasy land that only a storyteller of singular vision could be responsible for. But while I enjoyed THE DARJEELING LIMITED, and have come to think more of it as the week has progressed (I saw it last weekend), the signs of been-there-done-that are starting to emerge.
The film stars Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrien Brody as three brothers who take a surreal train trip through India. Semi-estranged from one another, all three brothers have their own sets of problems. The sudden (and off-screen) death of their father and their mother's subsequent voyage to become a nun in the Himalayas have left them feeling alone and broken as a family. Wilson's character, Francis, sports bandages all over his head from a recent motorcylce "accident" (but was it really an accident...?). Schwartzman's Jack, a horny little devil with a hipster moustache, has just broken up with his girlfriend but isn't over here (he dials into her voicemail throughout the film checking her messages). And the quiet Peter, played with normal actorly reserve by Adrien Brody, is the glue that sort of holds the threesome together. It would be pointless to spoil the story of THE DARJEELING LIMITED as the fun and joy of the film stems from the quirks of the characters, and a surprising twist in the narrative that forces the brothers to re-evaluate their lives and how they treat each other. It's sort of a more whimsical version of THE ROYAL TENEBAUMS, still Anderson's best and most complete film, with his usual flights of fancy meshing well with real world scenarios. Without spoiling any of the story, there is a plot point that deepens the film on an emotional level that was unexpected and welcome; for the first 40 minutes or so I was asking myself where the film was headed.
Anderson, a master stylist in a very unique fashion, almost seems distracted by his artifice in THE DARJEELING LIMITED. The movie is so precisely staged, designed, composed, shot, and cut that as a viewer, even I was distracted by the all of the sylistic precision at times. All of Anderson's movies are designed to within an inch of their lives; that's part of the appeal of his movies. Even in the very self-indulgent THE LIFE AQUATIC, which I absolutely loved but acknowledge that I am in the minority with that feeling, all of the style trappings that Anderson created worked to balance out the surreal aspects of the story. The problem is that in THE DARJEELING LIMITED, Anderson is working in a more realistic setting, and at times, his style gets in the way of his story telling.
Overall, I liked the film. I liked it a lot. But I didn't love it. And I have loved all of his previous efforts. I didn't find the dialogue to be as quotable as in his other films, and while I liked the chracters, I never truly loved them. But I do need to say one thing--it was very tough watching Owen Wilson. When it comes to movie stars, I have a very easy time separating their personal lives from their professional work. I could care less what Mel Gibson has to say about any race or religion; Tom Cruise can jump on as many couches as he wants too; Brad Pitt can date anyone he wants. As long as the quality of their films don't suffer, that's all I ask. But with the recent suicide attempt by Wilson, I would be lying if I didn't mention how odd it was at times to watch him in THE DARJEELING LIMITED. His character is the darkest of the trio, and one scene in particular with Wilson peeling off his accident bandages, carried an unexpected amount of poignancy. I have to say I got a little teary eyed. It's hard to think about guys as funny as Wilson trying to kill themselves; his on-screen personna contradicts this real-world desire. But in a weird, unintentional way, Wilson's real life drama pumps THE DARJEELING LIMITED with a sad-sack quality, one I doubt Wilson and his co-writers (Schwartzman and Roman Coppola) had ever intended.
Wes Anderson makes roughly 1 movie every 3 years and I am more than happy to revel in his cinematic wonderlands each time. He's a filmmaker who seems comfortable repeating himself with the same themes and stylistic flourishes, much like Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann have done with the gangster/crime genres. THE DARJEELING LIMITED will appeal to those who have enjoyed all of Anderson's previous movies but will likely turn off those looking for more realistically grounded stories.