Friday, October 12, 2007

Exceeding the limits

The Darjeeling Limited
Grade: C

“I’ve got to get off this train.”

It seems like a forgettable line, uttered flatly by a stewardess, over a cigarette and a nervous silence aboard The Darjeeling Limited. But that fleeting line, at risk of being abandoned along the rails, makes up the essence of the new Wes Anderson movie.

Sure, the film boasts an ironclad iron horse that can serve as the target for the reference. But in the figurative sense, the train is the “Wes Anderson movie” itself – all of the trademark quirkiness, deadpan comedy, and fractured families for which the prominent director has become known. The person needing to get off is Anderson, a writer-director of such distinctive success that he has become trapped in his own formula. The Darjeeling Limited represents the first tentative steps away from himself.

And so you have the movie’s first half, the story of a reunion of three semi-estranged brothers on the titular train running through India. Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson) has arranged this “spiritual journey” after a near-death motorcycle wreck leaves his head in bandages. His goal is to strengthen the frail bond with his two brothers – a writer (Jason Schwartzman) who swears his autobiographical work is fictional, even to the people who were standing there at the event; and a brooder (Adrien Brody) not so excited about his soon-to-be child.

Throw these three men onto the ramshackle train with a crowd of eccentric passengers, and as fast as you can say The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, you have Anderson’s latest trip into PrestonSturgesville. Except that’s not what happens. The movie is in fact a drag until the brothers get kicked off the train and must wander the Indian countryside. That’s when it becomes a gentle, life-changing, life-affirming departure.

One of the risks of originality and early success is painting yourself into a corner. It’s generally agreed that even if you find the movie amusing, 2004‘s The Life Aquatic demonstrated that Anderson’s tricks had begun to show. There has always been sincere feelings in Anderson’s films, but usually they are veiled in the careful layers of quirk that protect them. Appreciating his movies often came down to unwrapping those layers.

That’s not the case in The Darjeeling Limited, which is, for better or worse, his most plain-stated film. It is very upfront with its human touch. Also, this is the first time since at least Bottle Rocket, and probably ever, that Anderson’s lead characters feel like they originate in real space and time, rather than in the fertile recesses of his mind. I suspect that’s a conscious decision, and points the way to his future.

And where does that future lie? I think Anderson’s desire is to close the gap between comedy and drama, with humor so deadpan that it becomes embedded in dialogue and circumstance. It won’t be free of oddball laughs, but there will be few cues for laughter. You will simply observe the comedy the way you might find something funny in a piece of Altman’s overlapping dialogue. Your sense of humor will float through and take its pick.

Of course, if that’s the future, what do we think of the present? That it’s a movie on training wheels for an artist in transition. That makes it very complicated to judge the material. For instance, what do we make of the dire comic lethargy aboard the train? Is it a case of bad writing with new partners (Schwartzman and Roman Coppola)? Or is it Anderson’s way of saying that the formula is spent?

It’s that question I cannot yet resolve that makes me reluctant to fully recommend the film. However, I also do not feel entirely comfortable giving it the mediocre grade that I intend. Simply put, I don’t think any grade could accurately reflect the material. This film might look brilliant in several years, when we better know how this transition pays off. So if it seems like I’m saying ask me then … ask me then.

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