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Frat Pack Tribute Movie Review: The Darjeeling Limited

Synopsis

In The Darjeeling Limited, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrien Brody costar in an emotional comedy about three brothers re-forging family bonds. The eldest, played by Wilson, hopes to reconnect with his two younger siblings by taking them on a train trip across the vibrant and sensual landscape of India.

Darjeeling will open the 45th New York Film Festival on Friday, September 28th, and the film will then release to New York theaters on September 29th, 2007.

Listen to the Press Conference at the New York Film Festival

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Review - The Darjeeling Limited with Hotel Chevalier

By Mario Bernengo
From The 45th New York Film Festival

As many a keenly observant film critic already has been quick to point out, Wes Anderson's fifth directorial effort is, in many ways, similar to his previous films. There are enough familiar themes, enough "smart" pop-cultural references, enough information-packed pans and slow motion shots to pitch-perfect pop songs, enough "cool" or "quirky" or "artificial" dialogue for the revered intelligentsia of the self-congratulatory duh department to sit there with their checkboxes and tick off everything they expect to see in a Wes Anderson movie, which is exactly what they will get, completely missing out on what went on while they were busy polishing their Wes-bashing reviews in their heads. To be sure, Wes Anderson does revisit some of his favorite themes – mending ruptured family ties, the quest for adventure, male friendship, among others – even as he sets his film out of his carefully story-boarded comfort zone, in exotic, unpredictable India. But although most of his trademarks – down to his signature font of choice – are all over the print, in other, more important ways, The Darjeeling Limited feels like nothing he has ever attempted before. And I want to stress the word feels, because, in relation to Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, this new film has a very different, freer feel to it, which, on quite a few key levels, reconnects it with Bottle Rocket, while at the same time it marks a new, exciting departure for Wes Anderson in his filmmaking itinerary.

"Itinerary," by the way, is something of a leitmotif for the film. Not just as an abstract concept in a story set on a train about three brothers trying to reunite on a spiritual journey after their father's death sent them off on separate life paths, but in a very concrete, very hands-on way. In fact, it is laminated. That's right: laminated. No sooner does Owen Wilson appear on screen, as the severely injured, head-bandaged Francis Whitman, than he is waiving in the faces of his younger brothers, Peter and Jack (Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman), a very precise itinerary for their spiritual journey, printed out and laminated by Francis's personal assistant Brendan, who has been hired expressly for the occasion and is traveling in a different compartment on the Darjeeling Limited train, not to be seen or heard. As Francis enthusiastically runs down the general rules and agreements for the journey to the less-than-enthusiastic Peter and Jack, Owen Wilson conjures up the spirit of Dignan explaining his 75-year plan to Anthony in the opening sequence of Bottle Rocket.

And boy, am I happy to announce that, in the sad light of recent events which we all know what they are, Owen Wilson delivers a performance every bit as electrifying, as varied, and not to mention as funny as the one he gave in his screen debut, only richer, and more complex. He is, at once, warmer, colder, sadder and, at times, scarier than I have ever seen him. In the one scene of the feature that isn't set in India, but in New York, and which traces back a crucial moment in the three brothers' life, you get a frightening hint of what kind of person Francis used to be before his not-so-much-an-accident-as-an-attempted-suicide motorcycle crash that is the cause of his demolished face – and he doesn't exactly come off as a nice guy. We may find ourselves in the same fast-paced, free-wheeling, dreamy landscape in which Dignan might operate, but Francis is not "fucking innocent" – he is burdened, probably by guilt, and his bandaged head is there to remind him. It would seem that, beyond bonding with his brothers, as well as finding and bringing back Mother (Anjelica Huston) from the nunnery to which she has disappeared, Francis has come to India to redeem himself in some way. So have Peter and Jack. They just don't know in what exact way.

What they need to learn on their journey – and won't learn until they, in the poignant final sequence that mirrors the opening (where Bill Murray has his cameo), find themselves running after a train they have to catch, with all their father's inherited luggage on their backs – is to let go. And, naturally, they can't know that until they actually do. "Letting go" could therefore be the other, more underlying theme of Darjeeling. The itinerary is the blueprint of the story that is about to unfold, but it's not long before the events alter the course of the journey, taking the brothers to completely different places, spiritually as well as literally, than Francis had intended. The comical contrast between Francis's methodological approach to soul searching, perfectly captured in his neatly laminated itinerary, and the chaotic Indian reality he and his brothers encounter, informs the movie from beginning to end. And as India throws the Whitman brothers off course, the film rolls with the punches, moving between almost slapsticky, laugh-out-loud comedy and real, direct, no-nonsense drama as it has never been portrayed in a Wes Anderson movie. A notorious control freak, Anderson knew that he, as a director, would have to let go and allow for things to "just happen" to convey a story about letting go, whether of emotional baggage, or a destructive relationship, or a lost father.

And it is not until it all comes together in the end that you begin to understand what Hotel Chevalier, or "Part I of The Darjeeling Limited" really is about, and how it relates to the feature (Part II). In this short film "to be screened before the feature", Jason Schwartzman and Natalie Portman play out a romantic sequence in Paris preceding the events in India, against the beautifully funny and ironic song continuously playing on Jack Whitman's iPod: "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)" by Peter Sarstedt. The song seems a to set up the mannered character Jack, a writer permanently living in one of his stories, and how he sees his relationship with Natalie Portman’s character, but, in a way, it becomes a self-deprecatory inventory of how Wes Anderson might be seen by his bashers – a kind of pathetic, self-indulging aesthete living in an airless bubble made up of inanimate fetish objects. And maybe, to some extent, it's how he sees himself sometimes, and he's having a laugh at it. You could argue that, with Hotel Chevalier and The Darjeeling Limited, Wes is letting go of some baggage of his own; that is, the image of Wes Anderson. So, is Jason Schwartzman's character really Wes in disguise? Well, as Jack Whitman himself would say, the characters are all fictional. And of course they are.

I am tempted to call Part I and II of The Darjeeling Limited Wes Anderson's best film yet. Cleverly pulled off, with many layers of story and character going on in every scene, the film is quite moving at times, downright hilarious at others, always entertaining. The cast is spectacular. Special mention goes out to Waris Ahluwalia and Amara Karan as the steward and stewardess on the train, (and look out for Kumar Pallana in a silent cameo), Natalie Portman has never been better than in Hotel Chevalier, and the well-captured sibling interplay between the three leads is just spot on, so true. Frat Pack friend Jason Schwartzman's uber-pretentious youngest brother is the butt of a lot of jokes, but there is truth to his sensitivity as well; Adrien Brody does a great, angst-ridden klepto of a middle brother; and Owen Wilson's bullying but well-intentioned eldest is the inevitable center of nearly every scene. He owns this movie.

I give The Darjeeling Limited – though I have a feeling it will grow on me further – but Owen Wilson is five stars all the way.

Jason Schwartzman, Wes Anderson, Adrien Brody at the 45th New York Film Festival

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