by Michael Joshua Rowin

The Darjeeling Limited
Dir. Wes Anderson, U.S., Fox Searchlight

For those like myself who’ve never taken to the precious cinema of Wes Anderson, The Darjeeling Limited thankfully contains none of the following:

• self-satisfied opening montages paying tribute to Jules et Jim
• kitschy costuming a la tracksuits, tennis outfits, baby doll dresses, and knit beanies
• families of eccentric (but self-deprecating!) geniuses
• the dippy, feather-light indie muzak of Mark Mothersbaugh
• animated fish

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Darjeeling is no departure from Anderson’s previous work. Instead, and better yet, it’s a vast improvement. For dyed in the wool fans who may miss any or all of the above ornamentations this could come as a disappointment, but for the rest of us nonbelievers the film is the first sign of creative integrity from Anderson, America’s most overpraised young auteur.

The first surprise of Darjeeling is that it’s preceded, at least at the New York Film Festival (but apparently not in theatrical release) by a related short film, Hotel Chevalier. An even bigger surprise: Chevalier features the first ever instance of eroticism or sexual ardor in Anderson’s work—and no, Luke Wilson’s unconvincing romance with a Mexican hotel housekeeper in Bottle Rocket does not count. That messy thing called sex, and not fluidless puppy love, has finally become part of Anderson’s work in the form of a reunion between lovers Jason Schwartzman and an insanely fetching, short-cropped Natalie Portman at the titular Paris lodge where they engage in hungry kissing and disrobement. It’s genuinely aching for a moment until Anderson chickens out by taking the two out of bed and into a gratuitous, show-offy slo-mo shot for a meaningless balcony view, returning to Peter Sarstedt’s “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely),” whose melancholy the short film itself only approximates.

The Darjeeling Limited fares better. Despite Schwartzman’s ridiculous ironic moustache, his roguish Jack Whitman, the youngest of three brothers, is in Darjeeling a welcome breeze in Anderson’s usually airless world. Along with Adrien Brody as Peter and Owen Wilson as eldest brother Francis, Schwartzman plays relatively loose, in behavior (he skillfully seduces the girlfriend, played by Amara Karan, of the train’s chief steward, Life Aquatic vet Waris Ahluwalia) but more importantly in physical bearing. Anderson’s aesthetic failing has always been an anal retentiveness that renders his characters marionettes rather than beings, which wouldn’t be such a liability if his narratives didn’t impart the platitudes of a hundred dysfunctional family Salinger knock-offs. Max Fischer, Margot Tenenbaum, Steve Zissou and crew: all come across as retrofitted hipster audience surrogates in the first stages of fashion rigor mortis, crammed into Anderson’s toy box compositions and thus made into wooden, charmless caricatures no more contextually significant than a haphazardly chosen Miguel Calderon background painting or British Invasion b-side.

But Darjeeling’s a different story. The Whitmans are literally and figuratively walking wounded (their habitual sharing of tranquilizers and an assortment of exotic pills is the first non-Bill Murray joke in Anderson’s films that works), but rather than affect the smug deadpan of Anderson characters past, Schwartzman, Brody, and Wilson are actually relatable: Schwartzman is mischievous as a narcissistic writer, Brody broods as a trapped father-to-be, and bandaged Wilson, whose last Anderson role wrongly had him playing the straight man, does more here with the bossy, over-organized Francis, who sincerely wants to experience a spiritual bond with his estranged siblings—they haven’t met since, and are still recovering from, their father’s death a year earlier—on the voyage he’s arranged through the heart of India. Darjeeling’s enriched performances can be attributed to Anderson’s newfound directorial restraint. Perhaps shooting in a cramped train (or at least the mock up of one) brought it about, but Anderson relaxes as much as he can his possessive, symmetrical claim on space, keeping his stiff, graceless pans to a minimum.

He also seems to have learned the difference between trinkets and detail: while Hotel Chevalier still displays his fetishistic relationship to personal memorabilia, Darjeeling largely forsakes it, and in this sense the film’s unsubtle last image of jettisoned baggage hopefully portends leaving creative crutches behind. I don’t want to make the easy assumption that India alone influenced an artistic change in Anderson, but it’s clear the country that inspired Renoir has also gotten the best out of him. When the brothers leave the train for a stopover at a holy shrine, for example, Anderson beautifully captures the orange, green, and red hues of garments and interiors. There are, of course, inevitable flashes of quirk, but the self-awareness of being a tourist has, it seems, reduced Anderson’s twee tendency. Even though the Indian characters are mostly window dressing, at least they aren’t the casual ethnic jokes of Anderson’s previous films. The attitude adjustment is best represented by the replacement of Mothersbaugh on the soundtrack with a variety of tunes from the films of Satyajit Ray, though Anderson can’t resist transforming one of them into airport terminal muzak—kitsch habits die hard.

The centerpiece of Darjeeling is the heaviest thing to occur so far in the Anderson universe, and unlike the Luke Wilson suicide attempt in The Royal Tenenbaums or the confrontation with the shark in The Life Aquatic, this moment of gravitas feels right, not underwhelming. In terms of the narrative structure it’s a manipulative deus ex machina, but so was the child’s death in The River. After getting kicked off the train for sibling rivalry violence and letting a deadly cobra escape from among their purchases, the brothers try to save three young boys from drowning. Jack and Francis succeed but Peter fails to save “his” child. The carrying of the body back to the village, the father’s (Irrfan Khan) anguish, and the funeral ritual that triggers a flashback to the Whitman’s misadventure on the day of their father’s funeral that prevented them from attending—Anderson handles all of this masterfully, shooting it largely without dialogue (save the flashback) or the safety net of detachment.

Unfortunately, Darjeeling goes straight downhill after this scene. By that time the brothers’ distrust and petty squabbling has dissipated and their renewed affection commenced, so all that’s left to do is to visit their vanished mother Patricia (Anjelica Huston), now head of a convent in the Himalayas. Over and done with in a matter of minutes, the reconciliation is dealt with as thoughtlessly as the section’s tribute to Black Narcissus. Anderson loses interest in his characters and, predictably, goes back to what he knows best, dollhouse showmanship, in a tracking shot that surveys different train compartments housing minor Darjeeling characters (including a stalking tiger). It has all the markings of aesthetic regression up to and including a lazy and incongruent use of the Rolling Stones’ “Play with Fire.”

Growth isn’t necessarily the antithesis of regression, however, and that’s why the film’s last scene provokes such mixed feelings. When in slow motion the brothers run and board another train to continue their adventure, one realizes we’ve witnessed a false maturation. The spiritual journey’s destination was never in doubt—we’re back to the careless boyhood that Anderson’s sorrowful heroes long for and endlessly try to recreate within the adult world. That’s not an illegitimate end point, but one wonders if Anderson’s reliance on whimsy is the product of a narrow vision and not an even slightly inquisitive worldview. I don’t demand Anderson to “grow up”—whatever that means—but I’d like to see his films gain in creative and emotional intelligence. Darjeeling evinces such development, but ultimately Anderson’s learned little more from India than he has so far at home, in school, on the road, or at sea. Now that he’s influenced a generation of filmmakers (for proof check out Ray Tintori’s Royal Tenenbaums-wannabe short Death to the Tin Man at NYFF, which you’ll be forced to do if you see Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales), it’ll be interesting to see if he follows up on the auspicious indications of Darjeeling. Either he’ll abandon precious self-regard to other filmmakers—and with this film he’s shown more promise of doing that than the other leading late-30s American “indie” auteurs, Sofia Coppola and Paul Thomas Anderson—or decide to return to the safe haven of aesthetic playtime. Once I simply hated Anderson’s films. Darjeeling’s made me care about the director and where he goes from here. I sure hope it’s not backwards.