Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited catches the filmmaker in transition, and sometimes feels like it. His first three films, the acclaimed Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums, were all penned with co-star Owen Wilson, but Wilson's subsequent acting success left him little time to write. Anderson's first film with his new screenwriting partner, filmmaker Noah Baumbach, was 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and critical response was somewhat muted--it wasn't panned, by any means, but it was certainly seen as a drop after the steady build of excellence in his first three pictures. For Darjeeling, Anderson teamed with Rushmore co-star Jason Schwartzman and filmmaker (and Schwartzman's cousin) Roman Coppola to write the tale of three estranged brothers on a journey for spiritual enlightenment through India. Light, airy, and somewhat slight, it didn't quite live up to the hopes of Anderson's fans. But freed of its release date expectations, and accepted and digested as a "lesser Anderson," it offers some modest diversion.
The Whitman brothers are played by Wilson, Schwartzman, and Adrien Brody--apparently distinctive noses are in the family's DNA. Jack (Schwartzman) is a short story writer with a complicated romantic history; he's just out of a hurtful relationship, but he's clinging to the remnants. Peter (Brody) has a seemingly healthy marriage to a supportive wife (Camilla Rutherford), though he's regarding her pregnancy with alarming indifference. Francis (Wilson) is coming off a near-death experience that has prompted a spiritual awakening, so he's the instigator and organizer of the train trip through India, where he insists that they "be completely open and say yes to everything, even if it's shocking and painful."
His intentions to forge new bonds are honorable, and probably honest. But the three men are telling lies and keeping secrets from the moment they reconnect, and one of the stronger qualities of Anderson, Schwartzman, and Coppola's screenplay is how deeply it drills down into the pettiness, jealousy, and impatience of the multi-brother dynamic (I have three uncles--trust me on this). The trio is constantly splitting into factions, one approaching the other when the third is absent, gossiping and telling stories out of school; the dysfunction is palpable and realistic.
Their snappy patter and short, loaded exchanges are mostly done for quiet, subtle chuckles and jabbing passive-aggressive pain, though the eventual physical culmination of their button-pushing--a knock-down fight diffused with generous amounts of pepper spray--is played for explosive laughs, which it gets. But the picture's mostly low-key comic sensibility allows Anderson to successfully negotiate the eventual turn to more serious themes; there's an undercurrent of pathos throughout which eases into the foreground without much effort.
Anderson's intricately detailed production design is as attractive as ever, as are his elegant three-man compositions and playful camerawork (including some of his most effective, evocative slo-mo work to date). The film also has some structural cleverness--it runs in a fairly straightforward A-B-C chronology, but an unexpected, extended flashback late in the film is ingeniously done. However, there are some flat moments and genuine pacing issues, including a second act drag that makes the picture feel longer than its slight, 91 minute running time, and some of the sideline bits (like Bill Murray's appearance) are a bit baffling. The Darjeeling Limited is ultimately problematic, lacking the clean form and emotional punch of Anderson's best work. But that's not to say it isn't worth your time.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The good folks at Criterion are giving Darjeeling a second shot on disc, after a mostly bare-bones DVD release by Fox back in 2008. But its eventual Criterion reissue was basically a foregone conclusion, since the label released his four previous films in lush, fully loaded editions. Thankfully, the Darjeeling Blu-ray lives up to Criterion's usual standards of sterling A/V quality and top-shelf extras.
The MPEG-4 AVC, 1080p transfer is just lovely, with cinematographer Robert Yeoman's sun-drenched amber photography beautifully reproduced. The yellow hue threatens, on occasion, to overtake the palate, but the 2.40:1 image pulls up just shy, balancing out that tint with the well-saturated, eye-popping blues and reds of the wallpapers and costumes. Black levels are deep and rich as well, and contrast is excellent, particularly in the campfire sequence. Overall, it's a bright, zingy, sharp image.
The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is strong as well, though the rear channels are occasionally underutilized (in the street market scenes, for instance). But dialogue is clean and audible, and the surround channels sport a decent spread of music and effects (the train sound effects are particularly vivid).
The disc offers the option to watch the film with or without its short film prologue, the wonderful Hotel Chevalier (13:13), which can also be watched on its own. Anderson recommends watching them together, and I think he's right--the short is smart, funny, and surprisingly erotic and complicated, a brief but potent snapshot of a troubled relationship. Schwartzman co-stars with Natalie Portman, who plays the girl he's still obsessing over in the main feature; it's one of her strongest (and sexiest) pieces of work. It also helps give some texture to the main feature, paying off a couple of bits (like the French song on the iPod, and the short story dialogue at the end) with real richness.
Director Wes Anderson and co-writers Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman's Audio Commentary is both informative and entertaining, as the three screenwriters discuss the process of collaborating on the film and seeing it through to completion. All are smart and funny guys; the track is well worth a listen. Anderson also contributes a solo commentary to the Hotel Chevalier short, in which he divulges some interesting background on how the short came to be (far in advance of the feature, come to find out) and its existence in tandem with the feature.
The first offering in the "supplements" section proper is the short documentary "The Making of The Darjeeling Limited" (40:50). Filmmaker Barry Braverman adopts a verite-style, fly-on-the-wall approach, capturing impressions of the film set rather than souping up an assemblage of sound bites and slick clips. I'm a sucker for this particular style, and the featurette vividly shows the controlled chaos of a location set.
Next is a Conversation with James Ivory (20:45), the distinguished British filmmaker whose pictures (along with Satyajit Ray's) provided several of the music cues for Anderson's film. His affection and respect for the elder picturemaker is evident; it's an enjoyable, informal interview. The "Essay by Matt Zoller Seitz" (11:48) is a thoughtful, smoothly-edited audio essay/commentary over clips by film writer Seitz, who considers Darjeeling, within Anderson's filmography, to be "his 2001," the film that best summarizes Anderson as an artist.
Anderson's funny and fast-paced American Express Commercial (2:02), apparently shot around the time of the film, follows; next is "Sriharsh's Audition" (2:39), the charming tape of the 11-year-old actor auditioning for the film. The "Oakley Friedberg/Packer Speech" (3:34) is a slide presentation and Q&A, for his classmates, conducted by sixth grader Friedberg, who accompanied his parents on the shoot. We also get a very brief compilation of a Deleted Scene and Two Alternate Takes (3:21); the best is the "live sound" version of the tarmac scene, drowned out in the film by airplane noise. The "Sketch by Roman Coppola" (2:29) is a brief but evocative montage of footage taken during Coppola's writing trip to India with Anderson and Schwartzman.
"Waris' Diary" is a collection of 11 short video diary entries, shot by actor Waris Ahluwalia on the set. The "Trophy Case" (:41) is a quick and somewhat tongue-in-cheek look at the film's award recognition. The Stills Galleries present photos from on-set photographer James Hamilton, as well as snaps by Laura Wilson (mother of Own) and Sylvia Plachy (mother of Adrien Brody); the excellent Theatrical Trailer (2:17) closes out the copious bonus section.
Within the Wes Anderson canon, The Darjeeling Limited is a minor work; there is a slightness about it that his other films seldom have. That said, though it may not stand as a fully-developed or entirely rewarding picture, it certainly has its moments--the beauty of the train car sequence at its climax, the cleverness of the desert scenes, the warmth of the closing images. It's JV Anderson, sure, but even slightly off his game, he's more compelling than most of his peers.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.