Film is an art form. Sometimes that idea gets lost between the formulaic romantic comedies and dumbed down teen thrillers, but movies are supposed to be art. Wes Anderson has clearly kept that in mind throughout his career, crafting stories that are representative of the potential artistic work a film can be. Even better, however, is that Anderson’s artistry isn’t pretentious and is accessible to most audiences with very few of those “what the hell did I just see” moments so common to artsy movies.
The film follows three estranged brothers who are brought back together by the oldest brother (Owen Wilson) following a near-death experience (which explains the bandages on his head). Instead of just getting together over coffee or dinner like most siblings might try to do, the brothers go on a train ride across India as a sort of spiritual journey. The idea is to repair their relationship and reconnect spiritually as well, something that has been absent from all of their lives since the passing of their father a year before. As the brothers quickly discover, a spiritual journey does not automatically mean something is found, and families don’t just heal old wounds overnight.
From the script to the screen, Wes Anderson creates a touching portrayal of an incredibly flawed family. This isn’t unfamiliar territory for the writer/director and tends to be a common theme through most of his movies. It also helps having some of his cast returning from previous Anderson films. Wilson has been in most of Anderson’s films, as has Angelica Houston, who puts in a brief appearance as the boys’ mother. It's been a while since Jason Schwartzman worked with Anderson on Rushmore, but he seems at home here as brother Jack, even putting in co-writer duties on the film. Adrian Brody has not worked with Anderson before though, and is the film’s true “star” face. While, at first, Brody seems like an odd casting decision, he quickly shows why he’s an Oscar winning actor with the decisions he makes in both acting and reacting as brother Peter.
The movie is beautifully shot, with a true feeling of confinement as the brothers are limited to their train and opening up with wondrous footage when the characters move to the outdoors of India. Anderson’s style is clearly visible with some of the abrupt camera pans and movements, but it adds even more character to the movie as it allows the camera to explore part of the Indian environment than you might see in a different director’s vision, including things like decorative ceilings. The cinematography, including a judicious use of slow motion, definitely helps the movie acquire an “artsy status,” although the film remains accessible thanks to its content of brothers trying to understand each other, which is easily relatable to most people with siblings.
Praise of the movie’s accessibility aside, the movie definitely still has a few “what the hell” moments, like the inclusion of The Life Aquatic star Bill Murray in a role that could almost be forgotten if it wasn’t such a giant question mark. There are other moments as well, which I’ll leave to the viewer to discover and contemplate. I just really wanted to mention the Bill Murray appearance as one of those that stumped me. I’ll probably be thinking about it for days, and it’s probably just a meaningless cameo in Anderson’s world.
More than anything else, I like that Anderson avoids the Hollywood concept of simple, miraculous solutions to complex problems. We are subjected to several days in the lives of an incredibly flawed and dysfunctional family. These things don’t just go away thanks to a spiritual journey, especially when the three brothers involved aren’t even devoted to spirituality. Anderson’s film is the best kind of character study – a movie that opens a window just enough to let us get to know the characters, connect with them for the duration of the film, and give us an idea of where they are headed before that window closes.
The best thing about the Darjeeling Limited DVD is that it includes the short film Hotel Chevalier which served as a free, downloadable prequel to the movie that gave a little background on Jason Schwartzman’s character and his girlfriend, who his brothers hate, played by Natalie Portman. Once you’ve seen both Chevalier and Darjeeling, however, you realize just how important the connection between the two movies is. I can’t imagine not watching the short film before turning on Darjeeling, and not just for the limited amount of Natalie Portman nudity. There’s a certain depth to the movie that is completely lost when they are separated – so much so that the default option on the DVD is two watch the movies together. It’s just a shame they aren’t more seamlessly put together, because you have to watch all of Chevalier, including ending credits, before the production slates start on Darjeeling. Clearly they are separate movies, but they belong together.
It’s a good thing Hotel Chevalier is included on the DVD, because otherwise this is a bare bones release. Sure, there’s a featurette titled a “walking tour” of The Darjeeling Limited, but it’s hardly worth a viewer’s time. The twenty minute featurette is approximately eighteen minutes of fly on the wall footage behind the scenes of the movie, with no real context given, and about two minutes of information from the production designer. It’s all good information, but there’s far too little here.
Most notably lacking is any kind of commentary track, which is really a shame. Even if Anderson didn’t want to do a commentary, there’s so many other aspects of the film worth discussing. Bring in the three actors to discuss their decisions in building these characters. Bring in the production designer to talk about what it was like creating such a unique and confined environment, or the cinematographer to explain what it was like working in that situation. Sadly, nobody is there to explain any of the aspects of filmmaking, or to give an answer to those few lingering questions the movie itself doesn’t explain (what the hell was up with Bill Murray’s appearances, anyway?).
If you’re a Wes Anderson fan, Hotel Chevalier is a solid addition to the writer/director’s resume and worth checking out. Due to the lack of bonus material on the DVD, I can’t recommend picking up the disc as a purchase, but this is definitely a film to add to the Netflix queue or pick up as a rental.