Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
Before the screening of The Darjeeling Limited there was an announcement that director Wes Anderson wanted read ahead of time. We were told that his thirteen minute film Hotel Chevalier would be shown before the feature for us, but that regular audiences would have to catch it on the web where it’s available for download. (For this reason, I won’t review Chevalier, but if you find yourself wondering why Natalie Portman appears for a few seconds at the end of Darjeeling, you’ll want to look up the short as well.) I bring all of this up because it really shows how eccentric and original Wes Anderson is. His films are not easy to review because they are almost indescribable; not so much plot wise, but rather in tone and spirit. The same goes for The Darjeeling Limited, a film so original and surprising it needs to be seen more than once.
Like most “auteur” filmmakers, Anderson has favorite actors that he uses in just about every film. His favorites by far seem to be Owen Wilson (also a co-writer at times) and Jason Schwartzman (co-writer of this film along with Roman Coppola). Along with Adrian Brody they play three brothers who re-unite on a train in India after not seeing each other since their father’s funeral. Francis (Wilson) has bandages all over his face, the result of a motorcycle accident that may not have been an accident at all. Peter (Brody) hasn’t told his pregnant wife that he’s in India with his brothers, and he hasn’t even told his brothers that she’s pregnant. Jack (Schwartzman) is having issues with his girlfriend, whom he just left in Paris. Francis hasn’t told his brothers that their train ride will be taking them to their long-lost mother (Angelica Huston, another Anderson stalwart) who has become a nun.
It’s obvious from the beginning that there really isn’t anything predictable about the brothers’ journey, even though Francis has their entire itinerary mapped out on laminated cards. The secrets that exist between relatives are used as comic asides in the film, but that doesn’t make them any less true. It also doesn’t take very long for one brother to spill the beans about the other, and of course in the end no offense is taken. The heart of their journey centers on the untimely death of their father, and the brothers even have several suitcases with his initials on them that they carry from one place to another. Sometimes it’s hard to let go of old baggage.
Throughout the course of the film, the brothers find themselves going off track in more ways than one, and they are forced to learn that life doesn’t always follow an itinerary. One incident brings back the memories of their father’s funeral, and all of the hurt they felt when their mother never showed up. They are desperate to ask her about it, yet when they finally reach her she doesn’t have the answers they were expecting. In fact, she may not have any answers at all.
We have seen many films about familial problems and unrest between brothers and parents, but watching The Darjeeling Limited feels as though we’re seeing it all for the first time. Anderson uses eccentric humor where most would place melodrama, and the result is that the feelings associated with tragedy and loss sort of blind side us the same way they do the brothers. Anderson doesn’t have to hit us over the head to make a point, which unfortunately most audiences expect in order to feel anything. There is a flashback scene to the day of their father’s funeral which shows the brothers frantically trying to get their father’s car out of a garage. The mechanic (a fantastic Barbet Schroeder) tells them that it will be another week until its ready, but they just need to have it now. As they desperately try to get it running, they begin to realize that it won’t work and they have to leave it there. This scene exemplifies Anderson’s style, it may seem wacky at first but there is a real, painful underlying reason for it and he’s brave enough to put it out there.
Then again The Darjeeling Limited is full of scenes like this, and by the end it adds up to a memorable journey that contains many laughs, but few if any tears. This is why Wes Anderson is such an important filmmaker. He knows that tears are easy to manipulate, but making us see the light through humor is that much more rewarding.