Let me begin by saying that THE DARJEELING LIMITED caught me all the way off-guard and has me wanting to write a letter of apology to Wes Anderson. That’s because I walked into the theater 99.9% certain that I was going to hate it. If it’s possible to write a director off, I had pretty much done that with Anderson after THE LIFE AQUATIC, which felt to me like an egotistical and paper-thin work of self-parody. I personally wasn’t a fan of THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS either (except for the Luke Wilson tennis court breakdown and “Needle in the Hay” suicide attempt). And while I quite enjoyed RUSHMORE, it wasn’t a defining movie for me like it was for so very many people. Still, it at least felt like it came from a personal, intimate place. I know how we want directors to grow, but with every subsequent Anderson picture, I pined for the glory days of BOTTLE ROCKET. Somehow, with his latest effort, he has managed to recapture that film’s giddy energy and engaging spirit while expanding his horizons at the exact same time.
For me, there is a distinct difference between THE LIFE AQUATIC and THE DARJEELING LIMITED. Anderson confessed as much in his NYFF press conference, explaining that AQUATIC was a work of complete imagination, from the story idea to the actual set construction, while DARJEELING was written by three very close friends (Anderson, Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola) who were crafting their story from personal experience. Not to mention the fact that they were shooting on location, where they were forced to react to the real world instead of having complete control over every minute detail and situation. The finish product reflects this connection to the real world. Although it retains Anderson’s striking, almost cartoonish sense of style, THE DARJEELING LIMITED is alive in a way that THE LIFE AQUATIC and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS never were.
I’m not going to bore you with plot details. I’m more interested in expressing my shock and awe about the movie’s overall vibrancy and resonance, two things I was convinced Anderson had lost forever. Perhaps this has to do with his decision to reunite with Jason Schwartzman, who has proven Anderson’s initial casting hunch correct (almost ten years ago--how time flies) by turning out to be one of America’s smartest, most compelling actors. His mere appearance in the short preceding the feature, HOTEL CHEVALIER, restored a warmth and reality to Anderson’s world, which I hadn’t seen since… well, since RUSHMORE. As for the short, while I think it stands quite successfully on its own as a self-contained film (and can be downloaded for free right now through iTunes), I also think it should be viewed in conjunction with (preferably before) the feature. It establishes a vital piece of the ambiguous narrative puzzle created by Anderson, Schwartzman, and Coppola, whose clipped, sharp dialogue never divulges too much information.
Another concern I had heading into this picture was the introduction of Adrien Brody into the Wes Anderson universe. Once again, this time around, the decision to cast Brody felt completely refreshing and natural. Brody underplays his part quite nicely, sliding into Anderson’s world with ease. It’s clear that he and Schwartzman and Wilson got along like brothers themselves when the cameras weren’t rolling. And speaking of Wilson, he delivers a performance that recalls his glorious BOTTLE ROCKET debut, with some truly stellar lines (“Look at these assholes” being my personal favorite).
While I didn’t laugh out loud very much while watching the movie, I still think it’s very funny. Just not in the typical sense. My favorite example of this is when Jack (Schwartzman) is trying to woo the lovely stewardess Rita (Amara Karan). Just before she knocks on the brothers’ compartment door to deliver some nuts, he gets her attention from down the hall and simultaneously tries to light a cigarette with his right hand while suavely waving for her to come to him with his left. For a second, he can’t do it, as if he’s trying to rub his head and pat his belly at the same time. It’s hard to describe in words why this is so funny, but it is. More than anything, it brought me back to that original feeling I had when I discovered just how funny and distinct BOTTLE ROCKET was (this, I confess, happened on my second viewing). THE DARJEELING LIMITED is filled with these moments, which might not wow you the first time around, but which are nonetheless smart, clever, hilarious, and demand a second viewing.
The eerie similarity between Owen Wilson and his character Francis clearly wasn’t Anderson’s intention--and clearly isn’t his fault--but it does add another layer of gravity to the proceedings. I think what I like about THE DARJEELING LIMITED so much is that it doesn’t swing for a ridiculously epic emotional fence. Many will disagree with that statement, but I never saw its shifts into action and drama as being obnoxious or false (I actually think the unexpected flashback scene in the film's third act, which had the potential to crash and burn, is one of Anderson’s finest moments as a director). There’s an overriding air of hope and humor that exists throughout the movie, much as there was in BOTTLE ROCKET and RUSHMORE, back before Wes Anderson started to take himself too seriously. Ironically, it’s this return to a more subtle, humble approach that has me taking him seriously once again.
[One final note: The inclusion of peripheral characters in Anderson’s overall cinematic universe (Bill Murray, Angelica Huston, Kumar Pallana) somehow didn’t bother me this time around. I was nervous when Murray first appeared, but that went away very quickly--show me footage of a cow taking a smash to “This Time Tomorrow” and I’ll ride that train to the end of the line. But something about his placement of characters here felt more in tune with the Salinger-esque groove he was trying to capture in TENENBAUMS. I guess it just boils down to the fact that this thing really, really worked for me on this particular day at this particular time. I look forward to seeing it again before it leaves theaters, for I have a strong hunch it will be even more rewarding the second time around.]