Darjeeling Limited, The (2007): Wes Anderson’s Family Tale–Modest and Inconsequential

Venice Film Fest 2007 (Competition)–Going to India and collaborating with two new writers do little to invigorate or reenergize director Wes Anderson in “The Darjeeling Limited,” because he imposes the same themes, self-conscious approach, and studied wackiness of his previous films on the new one.
The Darjeeling Limited
Darjeeling Limited Poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster
As a result, he confines his characters–three lost brothers–not only within his limited world, but also within a limited space, in this case, a train compartment.

Nonetheless, after reaching a nadir with his last feature, the $50 million folly “The Life Aquatic of Steve Zisou,” which was an artistic and commercial flop, Anderson could only go upward. And, indeed, “Darjeeling Limited” is a modest, inconsequential film that’s at least not as dull or offensive as his 2005 feature.

After a decade of filmmaking, it becomes clear that Wes Anderson is an auteur in the most limiting sense of the term, a director who repeats the same ideas (and even characters) in film after film. All of Anderson’s pictures are about dysfunctional families, lost individuals (literally and figuratively), usually fathers and son, on the verge of depression and suicide, in search of identity and roots.

Anderson is a director whose career depends entirely on film festivals and a small, loyal coterie of critics and followers. “Darjeeling Limited” world-premiered at the Venice Film Festival (in competition), played at the prestigious Telluride Festival, and will serve as opening night of the New York Film Festival, before platforming theatrically September 29.

Since we live in a culture obsessed with the private lives of stars and celebs, commercially speaking, “Darjeeling Limited” may benefit from the recent news of the failed suicide attempt of Owen Wilson, who’s one of the new film’s three stars and a frequent collaborator of Anderson, as writer (the Oscar-nominated “Royal Tenenbaums”) and actor.

Credited to Anderson, Roman Coppola (director Francis Ford’s son and Sofia’s brother) and actor Jason Schwartzman (star of “Rushmore”), the tale of “Darjeeling Limited” centers on three American brothers, who have not been on speaking terms in a year.
The trio decides to set off on a train voyage across India with a plan to “find themselves,” bond with each other, perhaps even become brothers again, like they used to be. I wonder if the three of us wouldve been friends in real life, not as brothers, but as people, says brother Jack Whitman in what sums up the film’s simplistic if humanistic motto.

As expected, the Whitmans’ “spiritual quest” veers rapidly off-course, due to events involving over-the-counter pain killers, Indian cough syrup, and pepper spray. The three find themselves stranded alone in the middle of the desert with eleven suitcases, a printer, and a laminating machine. However, at this crucial moment, a new, unplanned “adventurous” journey begins. Question is, would it lead to increased intimacy, camaraderie, and bonding among the Whitmans.

The Whitman brothers go to India one year after they buried their father together, seemingly resolved never to speak to one another again. It is Francis (Owen Wilson), the eldest, who reunites the disparate siblings after a near-death motorcycle wreck that has left him swathed in a mummy-like mask of bandages and headgear.

Claiming his brothers were the first thing on his mind when he came back to life after his accident, Francis has pre-arranged a carefully controlled itinerary, designed to bring the brothers to what he describes as “spiritual epiphany.”

Each of the brothers arrives with an extra-baggage, big chip on his shoulder. Take Peter (Adrien Brody), the middle child, who arrives steeped in his own anxiety as a man about to have a child with the woman he always thought he would divorce.

The youngest, little Jack (Schwartzman), a writer who tends to base his fictional characters on everything that happens to him, comes to India still obsessed with the ex-girlfriend he left behind in Paris. Which means, he cant stop eavesdropping on her answering machine, for which he still has the code, a gimmick that Anderson repeats one too many times.

The trio of wannabe amigos negotiates and argues, and then renegotiates and again argues, as they try to understand one another, while the train moves through the ancient and exotic country. Of course, the Whitmans are so self-absorbed in their own small milieu that they hardly have time to glance out the window.

Though a minor, modest work, “Darjeeling Limited” bears some artistic merits and occasionally much-welcomed sly humor. In the first reel, Anderson builds enough curiosity and good will that make us wonder about the direction of the brothers’ journey. However, mid-way, it becomes clear that what you have seen is what you’ll continue to get for the duration of the sagawith minor variations.

Thematically, “Darjeeling Limited” falls apart as soon as the Whitmans decide to look for their long-gone mother, Patricia, played by Anjelica Huston, who had also appeared and excelled in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” a film in which the crucial missing figure was the father, Royal (played by Gene Hackman).

Anderson’s ideas sound far more interesting in theory than in practice. You expect from the setting more comic mishaps, a la Marx brothers’ “Night at the Opera” style crowding on the train, or more dynamic use of the basic culture clash, where bourgeois, selfish American tourists meet ancient spiritual traditions, more evidence in the tale of India’s vibrant, chaotic spirit.

Unlike the sly, original and witty “Rushmore,” and the elegiac epic about former geniuses “Royal Tenenbaums,” Anderson’s two best features, “Darjeeling Limited,” lives up to its title, offering a limited scope, limited sensibility, and limited space. Suffering from a self-conscious, schematic approach, the new feature has barely material for its brief running time of 90 minutes; a short precedes the feature to fill out the two-hour slot requirement.

Considering the above limitations, the acting of the entire ensemble is good, and the film benefits from the natural, low-key charm of its three leads, Anderson’s regulars Wilson and Schwartzman, and particularly Adrien Brody, who makes a strong debut in an Anderson movie.

Anderson regular Bill Murray, who gave a career-defining performance in Rushmore” (the helmer’s only really good picture), makes a cameo appearance as the businessman, sporting a porkpie hat. In the first scene, Murray is seen rushing toward an Indian train, but failing to make it, while Peter, also rushing, does make it. And he’s also seen at the end, this time sitting comfortably in his compartment.

“Darjeeling Limited” is a movie about male bonding and thus the women in the cast have close to nothing to do. This includes Anjelica Huston, who’s wasted here, appearing in the last reel in two or three brief scenes. And the same goes for the beautiful Indian thesp Amara Karan and Camilla Rutherford.

“Darjeeling Limited” makes some good use of the story’s distinctive setting by way of landscape, costumes, and music. Some viewers will find the film’s locale colorfully intriguingat least for a while. About half of the yarn is set onboard a train headed across the deserts of Rajasthan, speeding the shell-shocked brothers through foreign terrains, both physical and emotional.

Well-mounted, “Darjeeling Limited” displays handsome production values, courtesy of Anderson’s reliable cinematographer Robert Yeoman (The Life Aquatic,” “Royal Tenenbaums”), production designer Mark Friedberg (“Life Aquatic,” “Far from Heaven”), costume designer Milena Canonero (“Marie Antoinette,” “Life Aquatic”), and editor Andrew Weisblum.

Credits

Directed by Wes Anderson
Produced by Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Roman Coppola, Lydia Dean Pilcher

Written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman

Cinematography Robert Yeoman
Edited by Andrew Weisblum

Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures

Release date: September 3, 2007 (Venice Fest); October 26, 2007 (US)

Running time: 91 minutes
Budget $17.5 million
Box office $35 million

Cast

FRANCIS (OWEN WILSON)
PETER (ADRIEN BRODY)
JACK (JASON SCHWARTZMAN)
RITA (AMARA KARAN)
BRENDAN (WALLY WOLODARSKY)
THE CHIEF STEWARD (WARIS AHLUWALIA)
THE FATHER (IRRFAN KHAN
THE MECHANIC (BARBET SCHROEDER)
ALICE (CAMILLA RUTHERFORD)
THE BUSINESSMAN (BILL MURRAY)
PATRICIA (ANJELICA HUSTON)