film response: Darjeeling Limited

Wes Anderson backs off from the edge of the formalist abyss and makes a movie full of color and character and family dysfunction.

I’m a big fan of two of Wes Anderson’s first two films, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, mostly for the eccentricity and free-wheeling likability of the often melancholy characters and the unexpected ways they interacted and developed, less so for the artificiality of the scene set-ups and the resulting stylistic debris. The debris took over completely in The Life Aquatic, an interesting and often funny experiment in fourth-wall mischief and self-reflexivity. Nevertheless, it was a hard movie for me to like very much; no one seemed quite like a human being among the playful sets and seemed at the mercy of the hyper-self-conscious style.

Darjeeling Limited represents a partial return to showing characters I could learn to like, and enjoy watching, even though I didn’t quite believe the change that comes over them by the end of the movie. Basically, to answer a reader’s question from the comments, Darjeeling is about three brothers who were estranged from each other following the death of their father, but the estrangement was actually catalyzed by the refusal of their mother to attend the funeral. A year later, the oldest brother invites his younger siblings on what he considers a spiritual journey through India on a train called the Darjeeling Limited. The end goal is to reunite with their mother, played by what seemed like a stoned Angelica Houston, who is, somewhat implausibly, now a Catholic nun in the mountains, and thus restore and rejuvenate their family unity. On the way, they witness firsthand a death that helps them accept the death of their father.

The spirituality of this journey rarely feels more than ersatz, mostly because the movie itself invites us to not only pity but also disbelieve the sincerity of the three brothers, who frequently behave like clueless, superficial. self-involved tourists. Tourists in their own lives, not just in a foreign country. Maybe that’s part of the point, but if so, the ecstatic tone of the ending seems unearned.

On the other hand, I appreciated the insight that one often loses individuality when interacting with family members, and that aggregate family relationships can create unique behaviors and patterns, often self-destructive ones, difficult to change yet difficult to walk away from. If you get the feeling that you are not quite yourself when you visit your family, or if, no matter what you do, the same conflicts play themselves out over and over, then you’ll recognize the dysfunctions. Despite these facts, and despite the fact that they don’t trust one another – this characteristic is never explained, just taken for granted, and providing a great deal of comic relief – their affection for one another is the only thing aspect of their relationship that feels genuine, despite their constant head-bumping, or maybe because of it.

“Do you think we’d even be friends if we weren’t brothers?” one of the them asks about midway through the movie. The audience, by this time, I’d guess, is slowly shaking its collective head no.

“It certainly would have been easier,” says the oldest.

So it left me wondering, which is the nicest thing I can say about this movie. Oh, other than the fact it made me want to visit India. 

Alone.

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