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With: Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Anjelica Huston, Amara Karan, Wallace Wolodarsky, Waris Ahluwalia, Irfan Khan, Barbet Schroeder, Camilla Rutherford, Bill Murray, Natalie Portman
Written by: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman
Directed by: Wes Anderson
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 91
Date: 08/01/2007

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Crazy Train

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Like brightly colored toy boxes, Wes Anderson's movies operate inside a rigidly constructed, beautifully decorated, but entirely artificial universe. They can be intoxicating, lovely, funny and joyous, but can just as easily fall into stiffness from over-planning and emotional disuse. His most recent film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), was so carefully designed and filled with wondrous beauties that it clogged the emotional spaces between the characters, and they were lost, drifting among the fish. But when Anderson finds a genuine sadness among the beauty, as in Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, he comes closer to life. Those three films had in common screenplays written by Anderson and Owen Wilson, whereas The Life Aquatic departed from that winning team. Anderson's new film, The Darjeeling Limited, departs further, with co-writing credits for Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, but I'm happy to report that it returns to more emotionally connected territory.

Perhaps the great humanist Satyajit Ray (The Apu Trilogy) was an influence. For The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson ransacks all kinds of music from Ray's films to enhance his own tale, an odyssey in which three brothers meet for the first time in a year to find some kind of spiritual fulfillment on a train through India. Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson) has survived a terrible accident that has left his head and face covered in bandages and braces. Upon awakening he realizes he wants to re-connect with his brothers, Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman). They meet on the title train, bound for various spiritual centers. But Francis has not told his brothers that he also plans to rendezvous with their mother (Anjelica Huston), who ran away to become a nun in the Himalayas. Peter wears their late father's prescription sunglasses (mostly on his forehead), while struggling to come to terms with the fact that he is going to be a father in mere weeks. Meanwhile, Jack has just returned from a tryst with a girlfriend (Natalie Portman) with whom he shares a kind of unending, dysfunctional relationship.

Incidentally, Portman mainly appears in a separate short film, Hotel Chevalier, which serves as a prologue to The Darjeeling Limited. The 13-minute Hotel Chevalier will not be shown in theaters but is available for download on iTunes. [Note: the short was eventually shown in theaters.] It takes place entirely in a hotel room in Paris, where Jack meets the girl, and they waver back and forth between connecting and not connecting. Portman also appears in The Darjeeling Limited -- in one shot -- in a kind of montage sequence that I imagine could be confusing if you hadn't seen the short. (Likewise, Bill Murray also appears here, in his fourth Wes Anderson film, but only in the first few minutes, and again, briefly in the same "montage.")

In any case, The Darjeeling Limited starts like any Anderson film, with hilarious dialogue that deliberately clacks up against other bits of dialogue; the characters speak at one another, but rarely listen or answer. Here, however, this method is deliberate. These three brothers in fact do not connect. Anderson runs them through several comic tribulations, involving cold drugs, a poisonous snake, a bathroom tryst with a beautiful Indian stewardess (Amara Karan), a stolen shoe and other silliness, all of which contributes to getting them thrown off the train. The movie turns when circumstances (better left unsaid for now) bring them to a funeral in a small Indian village. Anderson then seamlessly cuts to the boys' father's funeral from a year earlier, and wordlessly juxtaposes the material craziness surrounding the American funeral with the more spiritual sadness and community of the second funeral.

From that point on, Anderson captures the wistful woe and longing that drove the best parts of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. However, the film is so entirely stuck inside Anderson's own head, that it's sometimes difficult to separate the calculated from the genuine. There's no question that it's beautiful and funny and even sad, but does it transcend all these to become something great? Rushmore, I think, does. That was a film that has improved over time, whereas I think I may have overrated The Royal Tenenbaums a bit. Time and repeated viewings will better cement The Darjeeling Limited's status, but for now let's just say that the film is highly satisfying and most welcome.

Fox's 2008 DVD ends all the speculation over the short film: they are included together here at last, with the option to watch the feature both with and without the short. Otherwise, the disc comes with a very good 21-minute "behind the scenes" featurette, which was actually shot entirely on the set with no talking heads. Then we get a generous selection of trailers for other Fox releases. It doesn't appear that there will be a Criterion version of this movie, as there were with Anderson's three previous films.

In 2010, Criterion came through with a glorious new Blu-Ray edition, as well as a deluxe DVD. There are some delightful extras, including a commentary track by Anderson, Schwartzman and Coppola, a behind-the-scenes featurette, a discussion between Anderson and James Ivory on the film's music, Anderson's great "American Express" commercial, Coppola's behind-the-scenes footage, audition footage, a few deleted scenes, stills, and a trailer. The excellent liner notes booklet has an essay by the film's #1 champion Richard Brody (of The New Yorker).

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