Thursday, October 25, 2007

Don't worry, it has slow motion scenes with British '70s pop

Whereas all of Wes Anderson’s previous movies have opened by establishing a controlled, carefully composed environment, The Darjeeling Limited begins with a frantic car chase through the frenzied streets of India. When a scrambling Bill Murray misses his train, the Darjeeling Limited, and the camera follows the train rather than staying with Murray, it’s the first in a series of symbols in the film that seem to say, “I’m trying to go somewhere new.” Like its protagonists, estranged Whitman brothers Jack (Jason Schwartzman), Peter (Adrien Brody), and Francis (Owen Wilson) on a reconciling trip through India, Darjeeling is searching.

Whether the picture comes up with anything substantive in its search, however, is debatable. At this point, one thing is unequivocally clear: Anderson is a master of creating iconic scenes and characters – even if, beneath his trademark aesthetics, they can feel hollow. As always, the film is unmistakably cool, and looks great, with a lush color pallet and longtime Anderson collaborater Robert Yeoman's photography at its best. But as discussed earlier, Anderson has found himself in a bit of a rut. You’d think following two of the most beloved dramedies of the last ten years with The Life Aquatic, an undersea “adventure” with animated seahorses, would’ve allowed him to break some new ground (he deserves credit for trying something unusual), but he doesn’t seem to show much interest in moving beyond the formula of emotionally crippled white men who deliver deadpanned one-liners, experience a revelation, and end up changed.

Which is fine, I guess – it’s more or less your basic story arc. Darjeeling doesn't stray from that convention, but in more ways than one, it ventures into uncharted territory for Wes Anderson, and the combination of the (now nearly claustrophobic) atmosphere of an Anderson story and the chaotic energy of India certainly makes for an interesting movie. It feels as if he knew that would be the case, and wanted to shake things up by relenting some control and just letting things happen…which is also the moral of this story. Spiritual enlightenment and relationships don’t come through planned itineraries, learn the brothers, but rather through how we choose to deal with unexpected events which come our way.

Like Aquatic, Darjeeling doesn’t feel fully formed enough to warrant the story’s resolution, although, unique among Anderson’s films, its power stems from its simplicity. The movie’s tragic turning point comes, for the most part, with no pop soundtrack (Jack’s iPod, which he carries with him in order to convey the appropriate atmosphere of the scene – itself perhaps a commentary on Andersonian techniques – is, again, symbolically destroyed when the Whitmans’ journey doesn’t go as planned) or dialogue, and for Anderson, it feels like a revelation. Still, the nature of the story’s climax follows a troubling Anderson thematic thread of peripheral, usually minority, characters who arguably exist solely to help the protagonists on their way to becoming happy.

Anderson’s latest couple of pictures aren’t as satisfying as his breakthrough couple, but the viewer is made aware of the fact that, even within his structured framework, he is growing. Which is more than plenty of filmmakers can say. (Also, it turns out Hotel Chevalier, Darjeeling's "prologue" short, is actually a helpful seperate piece.)

The Darjeeling Limited opens in wide release tomorrow.

Grade: B

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