In The Darjeeling Limited writer/director Wes Anderson takes his talent for long, uncomfortable silences and shoves it into a series of extreme close-ups by shooting a large portion of his film on a cramped, moving train. It starts with a brilliantly sequenced slow motion nod to his fans, in an opening cameo where Anderson regular Bill Murray chases down and barely misses the train that starts the film’s journey, only to be replaced on board by the much more fleet of foot Anderson newcomer Adrien Brody.
The train is the Darjeeling Limited, part of a cross country railway in India. Brody plays Peter and he’s just leaped on board at the last minute in order to meet up with his two brothers. They’re on a vacation planned by oldest brother Francis (Owen Wilson) who, after the death of their father a year ago, wants to use the trip as a spiritual journey that will reconnect the three of them or, at the least, help them figure out a way to get along with one another. Peter is hesitant but willing to give it a try. Youngest brother Jack’s (Jason Schwartzman) head is somewhere else entirely, having just left behind an on again off again girlfriend who all three seem to agree is just no good for him.
The girlfriend is played by Natalie Portman, who really has nothing to with the movie but appears in a short film called Hotel Chevalier shown before Darjeeling at film festivals. The short is a sensual piece of work, Anderson’s first real attempt at eroticism. It’s ten minutes of awkward meetings and sexual preludes followed by the stripping of Portman by Schwartzman’s character and then some naked cuddling. It sets up the character of Jack nicely, so it’s unfortunate that it won’t be seen in theaters when Darjeeling is finally released. Instead Fox has announced that they’re using Chevalier as some sort of awful, viral marketing scheme. They won’t show it before the movie, but they feel it’s essential to the movie so they’re making it available online and recommending everyone go to their website and watch it. I guess they’re hoping Portman’s partial nudity in the short will generate online ad revenues or drum up interest in the larger film, but if they really believe it’s important to Darjeeling well then you have to wonder why it’s not being included with its theatrical release. Maybe they’ll change their mind.
As with every Wes Anderson movie, both Darjeeling and its accompanying short which no one will be allowed to see, are told with perfectly framed camera shots where Wes plays with color, shape, and seems to have a lot of fun experimenting with the best way to line the three brothers up according to height. With all those long pauses in between moments, the look of the film is as much a part of telling its story as the performances of Wilson, Brody, and Schwartzman. Anderson’s movies always have a look all their own, but since this one is set in India and on a train there are limits to what Anderson can do with it. It lacks the patterned creativity of The Royal Tenenbaums where Anderson spent a lot of time playing with the background of Royal’s expansive house or putting Ben Stiller's kids in identical jumpsuits, and it’s missing the hilarious visual insanity of his last movie The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou where he spiced up the space between the film’s live action bits with out of this world, underwater stop-motion sequences.
I’m not saying Darjeeling isn’t good, it’s just not as good as Wes Anderson’s other work. It’s not just the look of the movie either, it’s the story, which sometimes doesn’t seem to know where to go and when it does, isn’t always able to connect on the emotional level that his other films have. For me it’s really the third act that drags things down. The film sets them up on this great cross-country journey on a train, and while they’re on the train the movie stays in motion with the three brothers awkwardly at each others throats. In the third act though, Anderson’s script makes the unwise choice to abandon the locomotive and the whole thing jumps off the rails. The brothers aren’t nearly as interesting running around out in the open and the movie loses a little of the diesel powered magic it has in the first two acts. Like the film’s characters themselves, it loses its sense of direction.
Darjeeling is full of fantastic individual moments and more than a few full throated laughs. Wilson, Brody, and Schwartzman give great, intentionally understated performances. Owen and Jason are used to working with Anderson and know almost instinctively what he wants while Adrien Brody slides right into Wes’s signature style almost as if he’s been in all of his movies somewhere and we’ve somehow overlooked him. Still, I can't quite shake the feeling that what the movie really needed was for Bill Murray to catch that train. Anderson's talent has always been in finding humor and heart by turning the weird into the mundane and the mundane into the weird. He does it again in Darjeeling, but the film strikes a more muted pose than his previous efforts and doesn't entirely fit together.