Wednesday, November 7, 2007


Around a month ago, I posted my review of Wes Anderson's latest film THE DARJEELING LIMITED. A reader of the blog, "Fritz," sent me his insightful and thoughtful reaction to the film yesterday. Below you'll find my review re-posted, followed by Fritz's comments. Enjoy:

original rating: *** out of ****
new rating: ***1/2 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 beginning 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--exist 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 motorcycle "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 stylistic 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 characters, 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 persona 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 one movie every three 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.

Now, here's what Fritz had to say:

"Was happy to see Darjeeling on the list of best of 2007. I saw it last night, and I was completely taken by all of it. I am a diehard Anderson fan, but even so, I could not fathom why so many critics were so lukewarm about it. Here you have one of a very few movies not written along the lines of Hollywood's five or so standard plot lines. The photography was downright psychedelic, and the complexity of the characters was as good as any in literature. Add the quirks, (Owen Wilson's facial bandages,) and you have a hypnotic saga that goes directly to the brain stem. Not the least of the film's charms was the metaphor of the train as life. In one pivotal scene, a child, barely visible in the> background, plays with a hoop, i.e., the Mandala, the wheel of life. At one point, all of the film's players pan by as passengers of the train, punctuated by the almost obscure image of the tiger in the night. Mom, by the way, has disappeared, and Dad is gone: welcome to the 21st century, where we are all, on our own. This was a mature and sophisticated film. When the three brothers throw off their baggage in order to catch the last train, I found myself cheering for them and for the people who had the sagacity to bring a scene like this into the movie which, by the way, there were only five people. I completely understand some of the confusion you must have felt after having absorbed Tenenbaums, Aquatic, etc. I think that's exactly what makes this movie so good: Wes Anderson decided to plumb for once and for all, the depth that his production skills and directorial abilities offered. This time, the production values were used not to illuminate, but to distract. Like the Victorian opulence of the dining car, his murals are now visual puzzles for the viewer to figure out. To wit-- again-- hardly visible behind the foreground action is the key to the kingdom: as the train begins to move, the boy with the hoop chases his wheel of life across the sun-baked Indian desert. Then there's the train the brothers board AFTER the reconciliation. The colors have changed from an aquatic blue of the Darjeeling Express to blood red. It's as if the tourniquet that has staunched their lifeblood has suddenly been loosened, and the circulation is coming back into the their limbs. And what color is their late father's Porsche? Uh-huh. Note how they attend the funeral of the young boy (one of three brothers) in the stolen pyjamas they boosted from the train. Like the rest of the mourners, they are dressed in white, but their garb is pilfered. In all those eleven pieces of luggage, they did not have anything of their own to wear to this solemn occasion... they had to clothe themselves in utter and complete foreignness. This is the moment of their baptism, their re-birth. Like infants in diapers, they own nothing. Consider that this is a film about Paris that takes place in India. So much of this film is completely Parisian. Go to Paris once, and you'll see what I mean. That whole bit about the Hotel in Part 1 is no accident. Train compartments, furtive liaisons, intoxicants, death...the French existentialists were all represented, except they were kidnapped and dragged to the Indian subcontinent, so that their pet themes would play out not in smoky cafes, but in the saffron and aqua colorscape of blinding light and chroma. If the film had ended with the opening scene where Murray missing his train, and Peter looking back at him wistfully, I would have been satisfied. I would have thought about the Louis Vitton suitcases with their jungle animals as contrasted with Bill Murrray's two brown AMerican Tourister hardshell cases. That stack of luggage is worth at least fifty thousand dollars. It winds up in the dust. As for Bill Murray, there's the old saying from "The Two-Thousand Year-Old Man:" Never run for a train, there will always be another one. Reincarnation, anyone? On the side of the train, on the suitcases, and on the top of the mountain where the monastery is... the elephant, the Hindu deity Ganesha, remover of obstacles. That's right, remover of obstacles. Is it possible that Owen Wilson, who strikes me as a deeply sensitive and aware individual came face to face with some old stuff of his own while making this movie? Can you really go to India and then back to Beverly Hills without having a few second thoughts about mortality? Your writing is killer, by the way. I usually decide to see a movie on the strength of what you say about it."

Fritz's incredibly astute comments about THE DARJEELING LIMITED have opened my eyes to qualities that the film has that I didn't immediately notice. I can't wait for a second viewing, and having read this response to my own critique, I have decided to re-rate the film and give it ***1/2 out of ****.

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