I love this movie. I say that without qualifying it in any way. For me, Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited is about as close to perfection as you’re likely to get. And with those bold statements, some perspective is needed: the admission that I am a Wes Anderson fan. OK, so his first feature Bottle Rocket (1996) leaves me a bit cold, but Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004) are among my favorite films of recent years—especially Life Aquatic, which I think is one of the great bittersweet comedies of all time. But Anderson is not to everyone’s taste.
With that in mind, I think it’s safe to say that if you haven’t liked his previous films, this one is unlikely to change your mind. I understand at least some of the problems many people have with Anderson’s movies. That they’re insular and self-indulgent, I don’t deny. That they’re stylized to a point that traditional notions of reality are all but jettisoned is unquestionably true. That the humor in the films is invariably so deadpan—and often so much an in-passing touch—that the movies scarcely seem like comedies is unarguable. That the drama is played in such a similarly unemotional manner that the films hardly seem like dramas either is the inescapable other side of the coin. It’s simply a matter of individual taste as to whether or not these elements are detrimental.
For me, the films are not only very funny, but also heartbreakingly sad—often during the same moments. Anderson’s movies are filled with sad people who know full well that something is wrong with them and with their lives, but they haven’t a clue what to do about it—and they’re not even sure exactly what’s wrong. In The Darjeeling Limited one character is even asked what’s wrong with him and has to respond that he’ll answer that later. Anderson moves his characters around on often fantasticated sets—the brownstone in Tenenbaums, the ship in Life Aquatic, the train in this latest film—as they battle the demons of their own denial and the duplicity of those around them (who are equally as dysfunctional). What is often lost in arguments against Anderson’s work is the simple fact that the filmmaker clearly loves these characters and understands them.
The Darjeeling Limited is, in some ways, the most precise work Anderson has made. Yet, I’ve been hearing quite often that it’s a meandering film that goes nowhere. It’s a charge that makes me wonder whether or not I saw the same movie—or alternatively, it’s simply due to the fact that people have differing ideas of what it means to go somewhere.
The film—which I’m approaching as including the 13-minute short film Hotel Chevalier that’s shown prior to the film proper—follows the literal and metaphorical journey of three brothers on a journey through India, in part aboard the Darjeeling Limited. The only brother that we know anything about at first is Jack (Jason Schwartzman), a writer who palms off thinly disguised truth as fiction and who is both running from and inexorably tied to a masochistic relationship with a strange woman (Natalie Portman). The only reason we know something about him is that the dynamic of their relationship is set up in Hotel Chevalier. There’s a sense that Jack is a close approximation of Anderson himself, especially in the character’s need to stage and stage-manage everything.
Yet, he isn’t the brother in charge of the trip. That’s Francis (Owen Wilson), a mysteriously battered and bandaged fellow, with serious control-freak issues. It’s his notion that he and his brothers Jack and Peter (Adrien Brody) should take this trip to learn to be brothers again—and to go see their estranged mother (Anjelica Huston), who has become a nun in a remote part of India. It’s just the three of them, 11 pieces of specially crafted (and numbered) Louis Vuitton luggage and a wide array of pharmaceutical narcotics on a spiritual journey only one of them really wants to make.
Jack becomes involved with one of the train attendants, Rita (newcomer Amara Karan), who is both drawn to and perplexed by him. All of them manage to constantly incur the displeasure of the train’s chief steward (Waris Ahluwalia, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou), who reaches a breaking point when Peter’s newly acquired pet—a small cobra—escapes on the train. But cataloging the events of the film doesn’t really do it justice; or maybe relating them does the film a disservice, because it deprives the reader of too much of the tragic-comic journey. And the journey is the film. When an old man (Anderson regular Kumar Pallana) on a bus asks them what they’re doing in India, Francis tells him that they were supposed to be on a kind of spiritual journey, “but that didn’t really pan out.” It’s typical of an Anderson protagonist that Francis has yet to see that the journey is indeed panning out—just not in the way he planned it.
In many ways, Darjeeling is a smaller film than either Life Aquatic or Tenenbaums, but that’s strictly a physical consideration. In terms of themes and characters, it’s perhaps Anderson’s most mature work. As a filmmaker, Anderson is definitely at a peak here, and his knack for matching pop music to his films has never been more assured than in Darjeeling. The use of the Kinks’ “Strangers” gets my vote for most-inspired use of a piece of music this year. Usually, Anderson’s musical choices are a matter of finding the right mood—here it’s both mood and theme. I really can find nothing to fault in this film. It’s dryly funny as only an Anderson picture can be, and yet it’s more moving and strangely real to me than any traditional drama I’ve seen all year. I can’t recommend it highly enough—assuming you can tap into the movie’s wavelength. Rated R for language.