Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Film Review: The Darjeeling Limited

In an attempt to repair their fraternal relationship, Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson) cajoles his estranged brothers Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) into going on a journey through India on a train. His plans for their trip, laminated itineraries and all, quickly go out the window as the brothers' neuroses, secrets and personal failings comes to the fore.

I have a strange relationship with Wes Anderson films; I watched his first four features in the space of one week a few years back after The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou came out and, if I'm honest, I didn't really like any of them. I found the characters unlikable, the jokes too arch to be truly funny, and the films seemed to be more concerned with framing devices than emotional content. However, some time later I decided to give them a second chance, starting with The Royal Tenenbaums, the film which I had disliked the least first time around. This time, something clicked; the characters weren't unlikable, they were repressed in a hyper-realistic way, accentuating their numerous flaws and foibles for comic effect whilst simultaneously making them seem strangely real; the jokes were hilarious; and the framing devices were just that, no more or less than a director choosing to tell his stories in an intriguing way but which did not get in the way of the narratives. Everything fell into place like a meticulously assembled timepiece, and I was having a great time.

So I came to The Darjeeling Limited with conflicting ideas of what to expect; having burst through my initial barrier of dislike, would I find it an unalloyed pleasure? Would it be an irksome first watch but unveil hidden depths with the inevitable rewatches on DVD? Or, despite my finally learning to love Anderson's work, would I dislike it because the film might not be any good?

In the end, it was a mixture of the first two but most assuredly none of the third.

Let's start with the less positive aspects of the film (I'm loathe to refer to them as bad since I found very little to dislike). The opening scenes features a character known only as The Businessman (played by Anderson regular Bill Murray) being frantically driven in a cab to an Indian train station, soundtracked by frenetic Bollywood music. He rushes out of the cab without paying, dashes through the station and runs full pelt to catch his train as it pulls out of the station. He looks like he is going to make it when he is overtaken by Adrien Brody, who easily catches the train and leaves Murray eating his dust. I only mention this scene because, half an hour into the film, all I could think was ''Why didn't they just make the Bill Murray film?'' Having to introduce the three brothers and the reasons behind their getting together gets in the way of the jokes somewhat and leaves little room for emotional content, though the way in which Anderson and his co-writers (Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman) work in the fact that the brothers don't trust each other at all is very subtle and clever. Probably the biggest problem with this first section is that the relationship between the three brothers feels incredibly fake and forced, something of a hinderance in a film about a family. It is during this part of the film that Anderson occasionally falls on the wrong side of the quirky/irksome line that his films so often tread.

However, things finally start to kick in after Jack seduces one of the stewardesses (Amara Karan) and the three stop off at a shrine to pray and buy things, starting off a series of mishaps that make Francis' carefully constructed plans fall apart. The stress builds and takes its toll on the brothers, culminating in one of the most inspired exchange screams I've heard in a long time (''You don't love me!'' ''Yes I do!'' ''I love you too, but I'm going to mace you in the face!''). The relationship between the brothers also starts to feel more realistic, and that initial coldness suddenly makes sense; its the only way that the three can really get along with each other. Their mistrust and seeming dislike of each other are suddenly thrown into sharp relief.

So the comedy works, but what about the rest of the film? Anderson's films in general, and The Darjeeling Limited in particular, have to walk a fine line between satirising something whilst simultaneously wanting to be part of whatever it satirises. In this instance, The Darjeeling Limited is satirising the tradition of Americans going to foreign countries and having spiritual awakenings that profess to offer some sort of deeper insight(best illustrated in the film by Francis placing undue importance on the phrase ''We haven't located us yet'') and actually being a film that offers some sort of deeper insights. For the most part, the film carries this off and this is largely down to a section about halfway through in which the film rather jarringly shifts moods to a more tragic tone, juxtaposing an incident that happens to the brothers in India with one that happened a year before. It's surprisingly moving and marks the start of the more emotional part of the film. The jokes, whilst still plentiful, are sidelined in favour of soul-searching and self-realisation on the part of the brothers, and it works very well.

All this, and I haven't even commented on the direction or production design of the film, both of which are exemplary. Anderson's particular style, parallel camera angles used for comedic effect, is present, correct and more polished than in his previous films. Filmed mostly in India, he brings a tourist's eye to proceedings (wonderment tempered with fear) that perfectly suits the story and the progression of the characters. The Darjeeling Limited of the title refers to the train the brothers initially travel on and it is a wonder of design; blue pastel shades that are just too perfectly maintained give it an unreality that contrasts nicely with the gorgeous landscapes and cities of India, and rivals the Bellafonte of The Life Aquatic for the best surreal, constructed world Anderson has so far created.

But, even taking all these fine points into account, this is still a Wes Anderson film, and that fact will determine whether or not someone will want to see this film. There's more than enough here to please fans of his idiosyncratic, quirky world but absolutely nothing that will make people who dislike his films change their minds. For those who are fans, the film offers up laughs, quirky characters, lovely visuals and more emotional resonance than any of Anderson's films to date. It's a really very lovely film and it also boasts a great, Kinks-heavy soundtrack, which is something many films could do with.

P.S. If possible, do see it with the short film ''Hotel Chevalier'' that precedes it. On its own it is a wry, dark and funny tale starring Schwartzman and Natalie Portman but it also works as a nice prequel to the main feature that adds an awful lot of depth to the whole enterprise, particularly with regards to Jack's relationships with women.