I can't think of another director who's been elevated to "darling" status as quickly as Wes Anderson. It was as if Anderson's films had a cult following before any of his audience even got religion. "Bottle Rocket" launched him, "Rushmore" solidified his reputation, "The Royal Tenenbaums" anointed him, "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" almost sank him, and now "The Darjeeling Limited" asks fans to vicariously book a passage to India for another semi-dysfunctional family outing. As with his previous films, the dramatic arc in "The Darjeeling Limited" is more casual and accidental than the rest of Hollywood seems to offer, with quirkiness or randomness often a substitute for conventional plot devices.
Will Rogers once remarked that nothing in life was certain except for death and taxes. But Bill Murray seems to have squeezed out two more guarantees: if the Cubs make the play-offs, he'll be invited to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" or throw out the first pitch in one of the games, and if Wes Anderson is making a movie, Murray will be offered a part. Though Murray missed out on Anderson's first film, he's been in every one since. His cameo appearance here suggests he's not only a good luck charm, the way the Pixar folks have used John Ratzenberger, but a visual allusion to Murray's "Lost in Translation." In an opening scene, Murray plays a businessman running to catch the train as it leaves the station. He doesn't make it, but one of the Whitman brothers does, implying that were it not for fate or luck (or faster legs), this might be the businessman's story instead of the brothers'. And, of course, what follows will be very much a "Lost in Translation" experience for the trio who haven't spoken to each other for a year, and who find each other's company as foreign as the people they meet.
Murray's feeling-out-of-it disassociation is replicated almost clone-like in Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) Whitman, who move from scene to scene with largely the same deadpan, as if powerlessly pulled along by some unseen force that's in no hurry to get them anywhere.
Dad is dead, mom (Anjelica Huston, again!) left, and so Francis convinces his two brothers that they need to travel across India in order to bond and re-connect. As we watch them, though, and as we see flashbacks, we begin to suspect that they were never all that connected in the first place. Francis tricks them, they withhold information from him, and yet we get the sense that the gulf between them isn't nearly as big as it was in, say, "The Royal Tenenbaums." In perhaps the most profound moment in the film, Schwartzman's character says, "I wonder if the three of us could be friends in real life. Not as brothers. As people." Good question, and not just for these three brothers, but for all siblings in every country. In a way, that's what this quirky film explores. Are these guys friends? And if not, can they be?
It's appropriate that Wilson plays the ringleader, since he has the biggest history with Anderson, collaborating on the screenplays for Anderson's first three films and appearing in every one. But for the sake of variety I think this film might have been more interesting if these three didn't all sign up to become members of the Bill Murray Jaded and Discombobulated Club. Sometimes their reactions and facial expressions are just too much the same, when it's suggested that their personalities are significantly different. That's one shortcoming. Another is that the film seems to take several tonal detours, changing most abruptly when the brothers try to save three Indian boys from drowning.
A third thing worth mentioning--though it's not necessarily a negative--is that the hairstyles and yellow-orange tint that the film has, combined with a Bollywood soundtrack, really evokes the Seventies. So does downing bottles of Indian cough syrup to get high. And yet, there's Jack with his MP-3 player and dock in several shots that snaps your head back and makes you realize, Oh, yeah, this must be now.
Francis is head of Francis Whitman Industries, and he travels with more luggage than all the rest of the people on the train put together. He has an assistant named Brendan (Wally Wolodarsky) whose primary task is to draft and print out a daily schedule for the brothers and give each of them a laminated copy. Brendan is off in another section of the train with computers, printers, and laminators, with all these unnecessary accoutrements suggesting how emotionally encumbered all three brothers are, and how much they're in need of a purifying experience. All of them carry more luggage than they need and drag more baggage than most, but what ironically stands most obstinately in the way of any transfiguring experience is Francis himself, who's almost as controlling as they remember their mother being. Peter, meanwhile, is going to be a father within a few weeks, and as shocking as it seems that he hasn't told his brothers before now, it turns out that he left his wife without telling her he was going to India. Before she told him she was pregnant he was thinking of ditching her, and so Francis' scheme couldn't come along at a better time. Same for Jack, a writer whose recent breakup with his girlfriend (Natalie Portman) gets confused with his fiction.
This DVD contains the prologue to "The Darjeeling Limited," a very short film called "Hotel Chevalier" which depicts Jack and his girlfriend in a passionate hotel encounter (yes, we see Portman's backside). A connection doesn't seem apparent until the very end of the film, but by then we've meandered so far across India and the low-key landscape of these brothers' memories that it doesn't really matter. When everything else seems so disconnected, why would it?
"The Darjeeling Limited" is an entertaining film, and a thoughtful one, if you pick up on some of the lines that point you in that direction. But at some point you have to wonder how many times Anderson is going to explore essentially the same material in a different setting.
"The Darjeeling Limited" (rated R for language) is presented in 2.40:1 widescreen. As I said, the whole film has an orange-yellow cast to it, which, combined with the hairstyles and Indian music, really evokes the late Sixties and early Seventies. There's a noticeable graininess throughout, and some of the brighter colors make for some indistinct edges. But it's not a bad transfer by any means, because you suspect that more of this is a directorial decision rather than a technical failing.
The featured audio is an English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, which channels some of the music and sounds through the effects speakers and comes most alive during scenes involving a lot of extras and street noise. There's a decent tonal quality, with adequate bass and a treble that's more muted than shrill. Subtitles are in English, Spanish, and French.
Some of our readers have already noted that Criterion has released other Anderson films and seems a good bet to do the same with this one. The scant amount of extras here only reinforces that kind of speculation. So does the fact that there's no simultaneous release of a Blu-ray. The only extra, other than that "Hotel Chevalier" prologue, is a very brief behind-the-scenes documentary that's narrated mostly by the production designer. We see Anderson on the set, and watch some of the filming, but by-and-large you get the feeling that they're holding out. And so will many fans, if they think an extras-rich edition is still to come.
I'm not as enamored of this film as many of the critics, thinking it more on a par with "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" than it is "The Royal Tenenbaums." But I enjoyed "The Darjeeling Limited," partly because of the scenery, partly because of the journey, and partly because the three stars were able to run--make that amble--with the premise enough to hold my attention during moments of relative inaction. And hey, it's Anderson quirky!