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Monday, October 8, 2007

Film Review: Darjeeling Produces Limited Returns

Waris Ahluwalia, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman debate moustache vs. beard

I had an interesting conversation with a filmgoer this weekend at the New York Film Festival. We had both seen Darjeeling Limited, the new film by Wes Anderson. He had been disappointed by it and I too was a bit underwhelmed. I compared Anderson to the Ramones in that their first few albums/films heralded an exciting new voice, but then everything after that were just variations that appealed to fans but had little impact outside of their followers. So it is with Darjeeling, a film I find myself growing more fond of as it recedes into memory. Memory is, after all, a central touchstone of Anderson's work. His characters often seem to be shell shocked, grappling with the aftermath of the offscreen death of a loved one, as in Rushmore or The Royal Tennenbaums. Their lives are a nostalgia tinged retreat from the world into Anderson's meticulously detailed universe, where a dead father's sunglasses, car keys and luggage can act as talismans.

Darjeeling has two sets of monogrammed luggage -- the aforementioned set that the characters lug around in a bit of obvious symbolism and the set that comes with star Owen Wilson. Wilson is at his best in this film, turning down some of his surfer drawl to find an uptight control freak inside. Yet much of the press around the film centers on his recent suicide attempt rather than the fineness of his performance. This is only excacerbated by his apperance here, bruised and bandaged from an accident that has a whiff of Willy Loman about it. He is joined by fellow Wes Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman who similarly gives one of his least mannered portrayals. Newcomer to the Anderson world Adrien Brody slots in seamlessly and the nuances in the relationship of the three men, who play brothers, is one of the pleasures of the film.

As is the scenery, shot in with Anderson's usual fondness for the 70's style telephoto zoom. A good chunk of Darjeeling Limited takes place on the titular train and was shot on an actual moving train in India. Though some critics have complained that Anderson is racist in his use of India as background (notably Jonah Weiner in Slate) and his treatment of non-white characters I think it's churlish to expect him to go to India to make a Satyajit Ray film.

The three brothers travel through India in an attempt to reconnect with each other that also turns out to be an attempt to reconcile with their mother and with the world around them. The devastating death of their father and their abandonment by their mother has left them bereft. Ultimately the setting adds the novelty that makes this reshuffling of standard Anderson motifs seem different. This still falls short of his early glory though, something his characters are all-too familiar with.

Darjeeling gets three out of five pieces of monogrammed luggage:

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