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The Darjeeling Limited continues Wes Anderson's string of quirky movies about self-obsessed, upscale characters trying to relate to one another. Anderson is nothing if not consistent. Even his The Fantastic Mr. Fox with its stop-motion animals will not be confused with anybody else's work. Despite its exotic and colorful Indian setting, the participants in this whimsical travelogue remain a stack of incompatible personalities not appreciably different than the maladroit friends in Anderson's precocious initial outing Bottle Rocket.
The ambitious The Darjeeling Limited charts the progress of a dubious spiritual quest undertaken by a trio of brothers, Francis, Peter and Jack Whitman (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and co-writer Jason Schwartzman). The maddeningly manipulative and presumptuous Francis lures his brothers onto an Indian train before revealing the unlikely mission he has chosen for them: to experience an epiphany that will bind them as brothers and bring meaning to their lives. With the aid of his fellow-traveling personal assistant Brendan (Wallace Wolodarsky), Francis micromanages every detail of the trip. Brendan has brought along a laminating machine to prepare the brothers' daily agendas. Francis orders food for Peter and confiscates Jack's passport "for his own good".
We can't imagine traveling partners less likely to make a personal discovery. Francis's entire head is bandaged from a recent suicide attempt; he looks like he should be at home recovering. The intense Jack phones 'round-the-world to check the message machine of his ex- girlfriend. When that effort is frustrated, he seduces the train's young hostess Rita (Amara Karan). The confused Peter hasn't told his pregnant wife about the trip and in fact has half-decided to divorce her. Both younger brothers resent Francis' cheerfully dictatorial attitude. His attempts to mandate spiritual enlightenment fail pathetically. Misreading Francis's complicated instructions, Peter and Jack fumble one "meaningful ritual" after another.
The men are charmed by the colorful train and its polite staff, but offering prayers at a few shrines doesn't enhance what is essentially ordinary tourist activity: Peter remarks that he likes India because it smells like spices. They buy illicit drugs and pepper spray, and one of Francis's expensive loafer shoes is stolen. People on a pilgrimage don't usually pack a dozen fancy leather bags, buy a deadly cobra snake on a whim, or break out in immature fistfights. The humorously sober train steward (Waris Ahluwalia) first confines the trio to their compartments, and eventually tosses them from the train.
The Whitman boys lug their designer bags around as if they were literal "emotional baggage". They buried their father a year ago under strained circumstances and haven't seen each other since. Francis resents the fact that Peter has appropriated many of the old man's personal items. Just when it looks as if their mission is a hopeless folly, fate intercedes to deliver their epiphany under tragic circumstances. In the relative calm that results, the boys decide to seek out their estranged mother Patricia (Angelica Huston), who has joined a convent in the mountains. Of course, they ignore her stated desire that they stay away.
It's not difficult to see why The Darjeeling Limited might confuse or displease some viewers. The Whitman brothers are not particularly likeable, and the domineering Francis would drive a saint to distraction. Peter and Jack are just as self-obsessed. When they try to follow Francis's lead, the movie plays like a low-key The Ritz Brothers Go to India. Anderson stylizes some action as if working with the Three Stooges, making them march in unison with their bags or dash in slow motion to catch a train. A typical shot displays three faces in a row, staring in confusion.
The color and excitement of the Indian train, the shrines and the market streets are a great boost to our enjoyment. But we resist the film's fitful series of false endings. In the middle of a funeral scene, Anderson yanks us back a year to the day of their father's funeral. Just when the film seems to have found a conclusion, the boys suddenly change plans and take off to see their mother. That semi-resolved episode leads to yet another meandering finish. Our interest in the characters has already tapered off; the movie seems far longer than its 91 minutes.
The Darjeeling Limited achieves a couple of inspired moments, as when Anderson interrupts his narrative to imagine a fantasy round-up of the film's characters riding on a magical train. A tardy businessman (a cameo-plus deadpan appearance by Bill Murray) is one of the fanciful passengers, along with Jack's ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman), a missing viper and a mysterious killer tiger. But the film also suffers from some awkward choices. The rural Indians that treat the boys so well are afforded respect and dignity, but they remain idealized exotics. The movie spends more of its time contemplating the pricey consumer goods that the boys appear to worship: expensive shoes and belts, a sports car, designer sunglasses. The specific tragedy that leads to the Whitmans' partial redemption is a screenwriting cliché beneath the level of the rest of the picture. The boys earn a soulful sojourn for spiritually challenged tourists, but a relatively anonymous "native" does the actual dying. Peter says, "I lost mine" as if he were referring to a pet goldfish. Although these unlikely pilgrims can be irritating, The Darjeeling Limited is also diverting, funny and refreshingly unpredictable.
Criterion's Blu-ray of The Darjeeling Limited captures the essence of a theatrical screening. Director of photography Robert Yeoman and production designer Mark Friedberg dazzle us with the vibrant colors of India; even the train coaches are hand-painted with delightful little motifs. The traveling scenes were all shot on a real train in motion, adding to the immediacy of the experience. When Rita brings sweet lime refreshments to the train compartment, she accompanies them with a dot of paint to the forehead. We don't ask questions, we just submit to local custom.
Criterion disc producer Susan Arosteguy's extras expand on the film's sense of adventure. The most important feature is Wes Anderson's short subject Hotel Chevalier, which is identified as "part one" of the film. Jason Schwartzman's Jack receives an amorous surprise visit in Paris from his estranged girlfriend (Natalie Portman, seen in only one shot in the movie proper). Hotel Chevalier explains Jack's general state of disorientation and the odd final speech for his next novel.
Director Anderson and his co-writers Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola contribute a commentary, but a recommended starting point is Barry Braverman's behind-the-scenes documentary of the organized chaos of the filming. Anderson sets up many shots on crowded streets and busy train platforms. We discover that most of what we see was heavily designed, especially the elaborate train coach interiors. Bill Murray gamely puts up with delays and discomfort while filming his brief dash to catch a departing train.
For those not familiar with Wes Anderson's peculiar filmic world, a visual essay by Matt Zoller Seitz analyzes both the feature and its freestanding prologue. A taped conversation between director Anderson and the famous producer James Ivory enlightens us as to much of the wonderful music heard in the movie. The Rolling Stones find a place in the film's playlist, along with many cues lifted from the soundtracks of classics by Satyajit Ray and the Merchant-Ivory team. Video journal footage from the film set is provided by writer Roman Coppola and actor Waris Ahluwalia.
A couple of amusing deleted and extended scenes finish up the extras, along with audition footage, still galleries and an American Express Commercial in which director Anderson lampoons his image as a trendy filmmaker.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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