Review: The Darjeeling Limited (2007) ****

The Darjeeling Limited

I arrived at five minutes to 6 o’clock, early enough to grab a parking spot directly in front of the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica and late enough that I didn’t have to feed the meter. 90 minutes before showtime, they were already haphazardly lined up along the sidewalk; the Wes Anderson faithful, skinny and pale and bookish and arranged just so, standing as though they weren’t an official line, as though they’d just turned up and found themselves grouped into casual clusters shooting the shit by accident.

The truth is, I feared them. I feared them because, except for a mild genetic disorder that renders me incapable of having any discernable sense of style, I could’ve been one of them. I could’ve been one of these people who make other people dislike Wes Anderson movies. Who were they? Well, there wasn’t a uniform exactly, but there was a definite type. They were a branch of Nerd-kind. The Urban Nerd.

A disproportionate number of them seemed to be in glasses. You’d think being a Wes Anderson fan was bad for the vision. Perhaps straining to admire all the tiny, carefully composed details of Wes Anderson movies had ruined their eye sight.

Upon closer examination, I started to notice more than a vague, general type. These weren’t just Nerds. There was a disturbing specificity to some of these people. There were Adidas and vests and blazers and more than a few Richie Tenenbaum headbands – cool in school when you’re the only one doing it and everyone just thinks you’re quirky and odd I suppose, but together with a bunch of others who had the same idea, well it was kind of embarrassing. Or maybe that was just me. Maybe the gene that robs me of my sense of style is the same one that artificially heightens my sensitivity to humiliation. It’s true. I am frequently embarrassed.

Most likely however, I think I was troubled because it’s vaguely disturbing when you realize something near and dear to you personally has become some kind of a cult beyond your own control or understanding. It has happened before with The Big Lebowski, there are whole Lebowski festivals for god’s sake, and now here it was happening with Wes Anderson. Wes Anderson was a thing. He probably always has been, but somehow I’d never noticed.

Now here they were, wearing their Wes Anderson fandom like merit badges; cinema taste as fashion statement. Here was a red knit cap and there a Max Fischer satchel… or was it a man purse? I don’t know, but as I made my way inside, I was relieved to see there were no red berets or light blue track suits. There were no yellow jumpsuits and no blazers with school patches on them; nothing but the sweet, blissful anticipation of a movie I’d been looking forward to all year long: Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited.

Then something made me turn in my seat.

I don’t know what got my attention, but behind me a young man fished into his coat pocket and produced an iPhone to the quiet approval of his row of friends. “You’ve gotta see this,” he said as he plugged in the earbuds and touched the screen a few times. Even as he handed the tiny black rectangle with the glowing screen to the girl next to him I knew what was going to happen. He’d loaded Hotel Chevalier onto his $600 iPhone and was now showing it off to his friends before the movie. Something in me snapped. This was just wrong. Horribly wrong.

I think I may have visibly flinched, but in my mind’s eye I imagined launching over the back of my seat, grabbing the scrawny punk by the lapels of his Wes Anderson blazer and then strangling him to death with the wires of his own earbuds. The irony was that Hotel Chevalier played before the movie anyway, so really the guy had spent $600 for absolutely no good reason. And no, I’m not counting the cheesy $100 store credit the chump got when all the weirdoes who actually waited in line to buy an iPhone on the first day complained about Apple’s sudden $200 price break. Suckers.

Also, for the record, if you get the chance, watch Hotel Chevalier right before you watch The Darjeeling Limited. It’s not mandatory, but both play off of one another and are better appreciated together the way they were conceived.

Anyway, the review:

A traumatic accident is the kind of thing that can lead a person to introspection, to re-evaluate their lives. Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson) has had just such an experience. Still in bandages from a motorcycle accident that sent him face first into the side of a hill, he has summoned his two brothers Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and Peter (Adrien Brody) to join him in India for a trip across the country aboard the train of the film’s title.

The three haven’t spoken in a year, not since their father’s funeral and, in his contemplative state of mind, Francis hopes this will be a kind of spiritual journey with his brothers, drawing inspiration from the country and the countryside so that they may bond and come closer together. He’s got the whole trip planned out, from the spiritual sites they will visit to the cereal they will eat for breakfast.

Spirituality and togetherness can’t be scheduled on an itinerary however and, jacked up on Indian prescription cough medicine and pain killers, the brothers fight. They lie to one another and they keep secrets. It turns out there are reasons they’ve been apart for a year even if those reasons are never spoken. “I wonder if we would’ve been friends in real life,” Jack wonders. “Not as brothers, but as people.” That’s the ultimate question of the movie and for a while the prospects look grim. Eventually, their fighting gets them kicked off the train and the boys go off itinerary. This is where things really start to get interesting.

Except for the cough medicine and pain killers, this sounds like the stuff of drama, and it is, but as filtered through the skewed sensibility of Wes Anderson (with writing input from Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola), Darjeeling is filled with quirky humor, amusing situations, odd characters and funny bits of dialogue. This isn’t necessarily a belly-laugh kind of movie, but it’s gentle and it goes down easy.

It is also very much a Wes Anderson film, as stylized and quirky as The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. To some people that’s good and to others it’s bad. Anderson’s style can create an emotional remove and he’s criticized for being all surface and no soul. An interesting thing happens in Darjeeling, however. The first half of the film operates as you’d expect, like one of Max Fischer’s plays. Things change however when the brothers are kicked off the train. The movie takes a bit of a turn for the serious. It’s a welcome shift and what follows is a bit more realistic and feels more heartfelt than anything Anderson has done since Bottle Rocket.

Once off the train, the brothers are stripped of their defenses. Being removed from their element, they’re forced to abandon their narcissism and deal with each other as brothers and as friends. It sounds kind of sentimental and overwrought, but it’s not. It’s subtle and moving. It gets to the heart of things that Anderson has flirted with more obliquely in his last two films.

The result is a performance from Owen Wilson that is his most enjoyable since Dignan in Bottle Rocket. Francis is more grounded and real than Tenenbaum‘s flaky Eli Cash and he lacks the affectation Wilson brought to Aquatic‘s Ned “Kingsley Zissou” Plimpton. Jason Schwartzman who often feels out of place in other people’s films, is right at home here. It’s good to have Max Fischer back. Adrien Brody is the newcomer, but he also fits in nicely, bringing his own style to the Wes Anderson show.

Of course there is the soundtrack, a highlight to every Wes Anderson movie. This one is terrific and it goes a long way to making The Darjeeling Limited feel a little different from Anderson’s other films even while it’s navigating similar thematic territory. As you’d expect there is a Rolling Stones song and a few Kinks songs, but the bulk of the music is drawn from the films of Satyajit Ray and the early Indian films of Merchant-Ivory. There is also no contribution from Mark Mothersbaugh this time around.

In many ways, The Darjeeling Limited is a much simpler film than Royal Tenenbaums or Life Aquatic. Despite the location work, the film was shot in 38 days compared to Aquatic‘s 100 and the difference shows. Darjeeling is looser and more relaxed. It’s more personal. It also never struck a false note and there was never a slow spot. If anything Darjeeling feels a little slight, but it’s genuine and entertaining. All in all it was a most enjoyable ride and one of my favorite movies of the year so far.

When it was all over, after the credits finished unspooling and the lights came up, I turned and looked back at the Nerds I’d come in with. Perhaps still feeling the warm glow of the film, I somehow felt affection for them. In a way, we were all united by a love of Wes Anderson and maybe that was enough. In the spirit of The Darjeeling Limited, maybe in the end we could be friends…not as people, but as brothers. Anyway, girls in glasses are hot.

The Darjeeling Limited. USA 2007. Directed by Wes Anderson. Written by Wes Anderson, Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola. Cinematography by Robert Yeoman. Production design by Mark Friedberg. Starring Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brody. 1 hour 31 minutes. Rated R for language. 4 stars (out of 5)


20 thoughts on “Review: The Darjeeling Limited (2007) ****

  1. The wait for this excellent review was well worth it, CJ. Thank you for further wetting my appetite for this film and for opening my eyes in advance to some of the delights it contains. I love Wes Anderson’s unique sensibility and aesthetic. It has a welcome familiarity and yet you’re never sure where he’s taking you. Anything is possible. That’s part of the magic. It’s like being a child again, playing a private game with arcane rules where the fantastic is conjured out of the purposely but quirkily arranged ordinary. Things are seen differently. And the characters in his story are often searching/yearning for significant connection. The fact that they rarely achieve this goal to the extent or in the ways sought makes their journeys end all the more touching.

    I was also greatly entertained by your prologue, and enjoyed how you paid homage to the spirit of the film by skillfully coming back to it when wrapping up the review.

  2. Thanks for the little extra pressure in getting this one out Sartre. Sometimes a guy needs a kick in the pants. Still no sign of Jesse James though, maybe tomorrow.

    I’m gratified to see you took it exactly the way I intended it. I won’t talk about all of my disappointments with it because I’m trying to learn not to do that.

    As for the movie, if you like Wes I think you’ll really enjoy Darjeeling. It feels familiar and yet different. To me the familiarity was comforting, not boring or redundant. It’s like a classical composer working out variations on a similar theme. I’m already excited to see it again. Honestly, that would be a perfect 7 word review right there.

  3. Your review whetted my appetite, CJ. Despite my affection for Tenenbaums, this one almost slipped off my list due to neglect. But now it’s back in the queue.

  4. One of your best Craig. You managed to inject a little autobiography into the writing without rendering it tedious in the process, a more diificult feat than some acknowledge.

    Your first four or five paragraphs help explain why I’ve been a bit grouchy about Wes Anderson lately. I hate it when I sense that a filmmaker is more about chic than anything else, and backlash can set in whether its justitied or not.

    I will see Darjeeling of course (I read part of the script and found it very put downable, but it was notably lacking in the sort of quotation marks that have become an Anderson staple) and I hope I like it as much as you, either way I have at least had this article to enjoy.

  5. Hehe, love the prologue, I know exactly what you mean: if all of a sudden something you thought was something that appealed to you specifically turns out to be very popular, it loses some of it appeal. For instance, I was a Tobey Maquire champion because of Pleasantville and Wonder Boys….and then Spideman happened.

    The scary thing? I kind of recognise myself in your description of the urban nerd. True, my style is more often randomly assembled than carefully thought out and consciously “hip”, and instead of a iPhone I have a beaten up old iPod from back when they still had only a black and white screen, but I do have “trendy” glasses, I had tie-wearing phase, and I have a DVD collection based not just on my own taste but also very much filtered by how I want it to look (hence the ironic insertion of Point Break, to throw people off). I have a sense of humor about it though, doesn’t that make it more acceptable? At least a little bit?

  6. Hey guys, thanks for the encouragement. As I said above I’m trying to get away from criticizing my own stuff out loud, so let’s just say I think I’m learning to not let the blog in my head get in the way of the blog on the page. The latter is never as good, but nobody knows that but me, right?

    That’s funny Hedwig because in one of my review drafts (wait, is it uncool to admit I usually have to write several drafts?) I had a whole paragraph about how the female versions of the above character type are perfectly OK. Better than OK, in fact!

    Alas, it wasn’t flowing or it made me look creepy or something so I chopped it out. The only remnant is the very last line which I also almost cut out because it doesn’t have a context anymore.

    Anyway, the point is I wasn’t judging you. And you know what else? Frankly, a battered iPod is awesome. It says “I have this because I love music and it works and not because it looks cool and matches my purse.”

  7. Oh and Chuck, I hope this one works for you. I can see a lot of reasons you won’t, but I can also see a few you might warm up to it.

    At the very least, it goes down easily and it’s pretty harmless. Your enjoyment of it might hinge on how much humor you find in it. I found quite a bit.

  8. Hello Craig! I loved your review. 🙂 I’ve caught many sneak previews at the Aero but missed out on this one – did Wes show up? That’s what they advertised at least. (A couple of times the director couldn’t make it last minute, i.e. Sofia Coppola for Marie Antoinette, Carl Reiner for The Jerk).


  9. Hi Maribel, Thanks for stopping by and for the nice words!

    Sorry it took so long for your comment to appear. I was at the movies (naturally) and didn’t have a chance to approve it until just now.

    Wes Anderson was there after the show along with his co-writer/producer Roman Coppola and one of the supporting characters Wally Wolodarsky. No Owen Wilson or Jason Schwartzman or Adrien Brody, but you can’t have everything, right?

    Wes Anderson was good, though he’s not the most articulate person in front of a large group of strangers.

  10. loved your review man and as others have specially mentioned, your prologue. Have to agree to it.
    Hoping to see it in over here.

  11. Craig, this is probably the best single review you’ve yet written, which is definitely saying something. Not only did you write an insightful yet non-spoilery, non-narrative-specific review of the film, but you injected an appreciation for the filmmaker in your dissection of his fandom. Well done, sir. In an honest way, your intro is as strong a critique of the cult of Wes Anderson as your review itself was of his film.

    We had the cult of Wes at our theater tonight too and seriously, if I were younger and less self-conscious, I’d probably be counted in that crowd but I just don’t have the energy to make the effort at this point. Plus, I’d feel really out of place if I wasn’t going to see a Wes Anderson movie.

    I’d also like to thank you for getting me to see the Hotel Chevalier short before I saw the feature. Not only did it pay off to see it beforehand, but I think my appreciation of the feature is different and more complete as a result.

    I’ll have my complete thoughts on the movie in private, once I’ve gotten all of them together. Thank you once again.

  12. I’m a big Wes Anderson fan. I even loved the much maligned Life Aquatic. Like most of Anderson’s films it gets better with each viewing.

    And I really enjoyed and was ultimately touched by Darjeeling. There were many bravura sequences – the opening (that worked on different levels), the slow motion tracking shot as the brothers exit a dwelling in the Indian village and walk pass the various funeral goings on, and the fantasy pan towards the end when the occupants of each imaginary train compartment are briefly spied. The nearly ever present luggage was an obvious but effective metaphor for the shared family baggage. What I found hardest to get with was the editing transitions during the first half of the film. They were so regularly jolting that I was left thinking it was a deliberate device for highlighting the brothers’ disconnection. The resulting episodic nature of the story kept throwing me out of the film. I became too aware of watching a loosely connected string of vignettes – some funnier than others. It’s also a period when the brothers’ are at their least sympathetic – self-involved, selfish, capricious, unreliable.

    The film gained more of my engagement and connection to the characters after the unexpectedly serious turn of events. Not just their response to this but also what we saw in the flashback to the Luftwaffe Automotive incident. Finally, my fondness for the brothers was consolidated by the visit with their mother – Angelica Huston brought real feeling to her cameo. Not surprisingly, I felt more sympathy for them from the point that the story and direction started presenting the brothers as more spontaneously connected to each other, less self-involved, and more giving. In many ways it’s a slight, eccentric film. But it has many wonderful moments, and eventually finds a path into your heart.

  13. I’m glad Darjeeling worked for you Sartre.

    You’re right that the early part was episodic, and overall the film felt a little slight. There’s a message here I think, but it’s not very deeply buried.

    But that’s ok, right? In the short term, I’d say yes, but I wonder how this will play in the future. Like you, I like Aquatic more the more I see it. It continues to reveal new pleasures with each viewing. Darjeeling, I’m not so sure, but only time will tell.

  14. I agree that there’s a message here, and that it’s a nice one.

    I also share your skepticism about it getting better with repeat viewings. But you never know, maybe it’ll consolidate its gentle hold on one’s heart over time.

  15. Loved the review Craig. Though I have not read all of your reviews, I agree with Joel that this is one of your best. I got the tag line at the end just fine – if you have a memory that lasts more than a minute, the context is still there. I thought it was a great way to pull out of the bit syrupy end of the review and remind us that while you have a heart, you still have that acerbic witt. Plus we’ve talked about nerdy girls with glasses before, hiking in Sequoia. Sandra?

  16. That’s awesome Peter that you saw the acerbic part of it….I was afraid it would be seen purely as syrup when I meant it as a time-release acid pill that would only kick in AFTER the syrup was swallowed.

    Kind of a kick in the balls when you thought I was being nice!

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