More than any other contemporary filmmaker, Wes Anderson has succeeded in crafting his own highly original, instantly recognizable universe. Inhabited by quirky characters usually depressed on some level or other, the world of his films is quite the whimsical place. All of Anderson’s films, both his masterpieces (The Royal Tenenbaums) and his relative failures (The Life Aquatic), are distinctly set in these carefully created quarters. His latest effort, The Darjeeling Limited, is no exception. From the moment the film starts rolling, revealing Bill Murray in the back of an Indian cab frantically speeding towards a train station to the sound of a sitar-infused beat, it is clear that we are in a Wes Anderson movie.
Throughout the movie’s ninety-one minutes, the filmmaker brilliantly develops the intricacies – both aesthetic and emotional – of his universe, leading us to appreciate his idiosyncratic protagonists as much as the carefully choreographed shots that frame them. Like The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited deals with the dynamics of a family. The film follows the Whitman brothers, Peter (Adrian Brody), Jack (Jason Schwartzman, who co-wrote the script with Anderson and Roman Coppola), and Francis (Owen Wilson), who haven’t seen each other since their father’s funeral. After a year of estrangement, Francis has a near fatal accident, leaving him badly bruised and prompting him to gather his brothers on a train in India. Though he has yet to announce it to his siblings, the ultimate stop on their journey is to be a remote convent, where their estranged mother (a fantastic Anjelica Huston) is working as a nun.
The journey we sit in on is funny and touching, as the eccentric characters are both highly caricaturized and no more ridiculous than any of us. Put differently, Anderson crafts characters unlike anybody we know, and yet decidedly familiar. When Francis, the oldest of the three brothers, confiscates his siblings’ passports to ensure they don’t escape, or orders food for them in the train’s restaurant – as if divinely appointed to micromanage his brothers’ lives – his actions are both unmistakably Andersonesque and universally familiar. After all, who hasn’t had a family member take on just a little too much responsibility in a highly annoying way?
As the train – and the film – moves along, the brothers remain dysfunctional, and spend more time arguing and throwing accusations at one another – “is that dad’s razor?” – than they do bonding. They go into their pseudo-spiritual quest with a “say yes to everything” outlook, but their attempts to reach religious awakening are all too blatantly superficial. “We have fifteen minutes before the flight,” explains Francis to his brothers, before detailing how they are to be spent: five minutes to shop for souvenirs, five minutes to brush up in the bathroom, and five minutes to pray and reflect on their spiritual bonding in the airport’s holy shrine.
As in all Anderson films, the characters are decidedly off-beat. Francis, for instance, who spends the entire movie covered in an impressive array of bandages, has hired a personal assistant to slip highly detailed, meticulously laminated itineraries under the brothers’ cabin door every morning. Jack, who always keeps his iPod speakers handy (including at a campfire in the middle of the desert) not-so-discretely. but nonetheless effectively, courts the “savory nut”/tea-serving-waitress on the train. As for Peter, he has apparently picked up any and every item his dead father left within snatching distance, including a pair of sunglasses he wears throughout the film, despite the rather inconveniently strong prescription begging to be replaced. Rather charmingly, all three brothers spend much of the movie smoking, drinking, and exchanging various prescription painkillers with something close to ceremonial precision.
Equally charming is the film’s setting. As we watch the camera smoothly move along busy Indian streets and across beautifully bare landscapes, it becomes clear that Anderson is deeply in love with the country on screen. Indians are portrayed as sometimes out of control – but lovably so. When Francis gets his footwear shined, ending up one shoe poorer than expected, the incident is presented as a lovable farce rather than a robbery. When the brothers happen upon three drowning youths –a symbol for their own state on some level, I imagine – they do their best to help them, and are warmly thanked by the villagers, who invite the Whitman brothers to participate in their local rituals.
Anderson’s greatest strength, though, might well be his willingness to venture into the risky territory of genuine emotion and deceptively simple symbolism. As Francis offers to return his brothers’ passports late in the journey, they ask him to hold on to them–concluding that they are safer in his hands. When Francis wraps off his bandages for the first and only time, he reflects on his gruesome bruises: “I’ve still got a lot of healing to do,” he says to his brothers, before adding that it’s slowly getting better. In a distinctly Andersonian shot at the end of the film, the camera tracks along the station platform with the brothers in slow motion, as they drop their (physically and emotionally) cumbersome luggage in order to catch an already moving train.
One might call these symbols cheesy, or dismiss the technique as exploitative. As far as I’m concerned, though, in Wes Anderson’s universe, such critiques are nothing short of irrelevant in the face of what is, quite simply, a beautifully realized, highly lovable film.