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Wes Anderson?s Darjeeling Limited: The Stop Smiling Film Review

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Fox Searchlight)


Friday, October 12, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Directed by Wes Anderson
(Fox Searchlight)

Reviewed by Nick Pinkerton

The Sixties being the key point of reference for Wes Anderson’s individuated aesthetic — in music, in style, in cinema — it’s only natural that in choosing the destination for this overtly spiritually questing film, he would pilgrimage to the land that made a guru of George Harrison: India. (It’s also telling, given Anderson’s penchant for impossible longing, that he should draw so heavily from a decade that he lived in for all of eight months.)

The title Darjeeling Limited refers to a fictitious, cerulean-hued long-distance passenger train that crosses the Northwest of the subcontinent. Aboard, one of the first-class cabins hosts the reunion of the Whitmans, three well-heeled American brothers who haven’t been together since the death of their father a year prior. The trip is a project of the eldest, Francis (Owen Wilson), who’s still recovering from a motorcycle accident that left his head swaddled in a headdress of gauze and gave him a jarring reminder of the lacks in his life. Electing himself autocratic leader of the expedition through force of habit, Francis provides laminated itineraries (as worked out by his casually abused, turtle-faced assistant) that detail each day’s stop-offs for sightseeing and spiritual sustenance, orders everyone’s meals for them, hangs onto the passports for safekeeping, and generally acts the part of an amiable, unconscious bully. Railroaded along are morose, married middle sibling Peter (Adrian Brody), whose wife’s first pregnancy has him fraught with ambivalence, and the baby, Jack (Jason Schwartzman), a sexually skittish short-story writer masochistically huffing the fumes of his last soured affair (only referred to in Darjeeling, but glimpsed in an awful Paris-set prologue short, Hotel Chevalier, that’s not to be screened theatrically).

They’re all still young, though not young enough to justify the behavior they quickly regress into. The broken-down mechanics of the Whitmans’ relationships come across in a series of petty betrayals — Francis declares a rule of absolute openness and honesty, but decades-old allegiances are instinctively re-drawn. Anderson, a middle child himself, knows this material — another “enervated family of origin” story, per last year’s inexplicably, much-circulated open letter from Steely Dan. But something has gone missing since the end of the filmmaker’s three-film screenwriting collaboration with cornerstone actor Wilson, which terminated in another excavation of family fault lines, 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums. One misses the funny, prickly little lines that made the Anderson-Wilson films such ready-to-quote affairs. Stabs at the epigrammatic still come here and there, but there’s nothing half so good as the peek of Eli Cash’s purple prose in Tenenbaums: “‘Vámonos, amigos,’ he whispered, and threw the busted leather flintcraw over the loose weave of the saddlecock. And they rode on in the friscalating dusklight.” (There’s an excerpt from one of Jack’s stories in Darjeeling that’s just as ripe — but it isn’t played for laughs.) The Whitman brothers are rather faintly written all-around: each is limited to a single, neatly synopsized character trait — as in a hasty improv exercise — with the inherent charisma of the actors relied on to draw a viewer the rest of the way on-board. This isn’t a problem for Wilson, the truest star of the bunch — the one most reliable to make line-readings count for something. No other actor alive could’ve made two Shanghai movies watchable. But neither Brody (giving something like the pinched performance he supplied in Dummy) nor the increasingly unappealing Schwartzman (sharing a co-writer credit here with his cousin Roman Coppola and Anderson) are quite able to step forward from the scenery.

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