Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Darjeeling Limited

The Darjeeling Limited is a perfect encapsulation of Wes Anderson as a writer/director. It is visually ambitious and exciting, it’s drolly humorous, it’s occasionally boring, and it’s intermittently brilliant. All of Anderson’s movies have had these qualities, starting with 1996’s Bottle Rocket and continuing through Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Anderson’s movies are always episodic in nature, but the danger with that approach is that you run the risk of certain episodes not working as well as others. And that’s exactly what happens here.

Jack (Jason Schwartzman), Francis (Owen Wilson), and Peter Whitman (Adrien Brody) are brothers trying to reconnect, after a year of no contact, by taking a journey through India on a train called The Darjeeling Limited. Francis orchestrated the odyssey, and is the most active in trying to get the brothers to open up and trust each other again. He has an assistant who has detailed daily itineraries, which may include things like “wake up”, and a timeslot for spiritual awakening. That’s the basic plot outline, the episodic nature of the movie prevents me from being able to fully detail the other goings on, but it doesn’t matter. The episodic nature is the point of a movie like The Darjeeling Limited, because journeys are episodic by definition, and these guys are most assuredly on a journey.

As I said, the danger of all episodic works is the possibility of some episodes being more successful than others. For instance, while on the train, Jack falls hard for the beautiful stewardess Rita (beautiful newcomer Amara Karan) and they begin a short, secret affair behind the back of her boyfriend the Chief Steward (Waris Ahluwalia). I was fascinated by this sequence, as the actors shared a nice sense of humor, and a terrifically sweet chemistry. I wanted more of this piece, but maybe it was best Anderson left me wanting more. There are other sequences that work, like when the train gets lost (“How can a train be lost?” Jack asks “It’s on rails.”), or when Francis and Peter stupidly fight over a belt and Jack hilariously tries to both take action, and run away. There’s also a nice flashback to when the guys were on their way to a funeral, but there was too much stuff in the picture that didn’t work. The movie is only 91 minutes, but it felt much, much longer. There are no particular big sequences that completely don’t work, but I felt it was the majority of the little things between the sequences that weren’t successful for me, coupled with Anderson’s usual leisurely pacing.

Just like all of Anderson’s movies, The Darjeeling Limited is gorgeous to look at. He has always been a gifted visual director, and though some accuse him of being over-the-top in his visuals, you won’t hear me complaining. Anderson is remarkably assured in his visual composition, often creating shots that could work as still photographs. There were the wonderful single take walkthroughs of the boat in The Life Aquatic, and Anderson equals those shots here with a sort of “summing up” tracking shot down the length of the train. The single shot contains many elements of the journey, with each incident, or person, in another compartment of the train, decorated like the backdrop of their sequence (we look in from the side, just like the boat shots in The Life Aquatic). I didn’t time it, or count the number of compartments, but just as the bulk of Anderson’s other show-offy camerawork does, it enhances and supports the story rather than detracts from it.

The Darjeeling Limited is preceded by a 13-minute short film called Hotel Chevalier, starring Schwartzman’s character Jack, as his unnamed former girlfriend (Natalie Portman) visits him in his hotel room in Paris. It has become somewhat infamous for being the only movie in which Portman has done a nude scene (tastefully seen from behind), but it’s also a perfect representation of Wes Anderson’s brilliance. There are small, mostly non-speaking, parts by other actors, but it’s basically just Portman and Schwartzman in a hotel room. In very little time they establish a feeling of history between the characters, and we’re intrigued by what has happened to them in the past, and what will happen to them going forward. The short has a wonderful atmosphere of sexual tension, past pain, humor, and romance. Both actors are terrific, and it’s just the right length at 13 minutes. It’s a superb portrayal of how great Anderson can be in small doses, while the movie itself is proof that he can’t quite always extend that brilliance for an entire feature.

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