Wes Anderson/USA/2007; R4
Roadshow, $19.95 (until 25/11) | Reviewed by David Levinson

ARRIVING part-and-parcel with the waves of hype that precede it, backlash is an integral part of the natural order of criticism – a Darwinian acid-test that separates the fad from the bona fide. Those that withstand its lashings will usually reveal their caster for the attention-starved grinch they are, while in other less propitious cases the bad buzz might help stop a runaway bandwagon. Not all trajectories are that simple, of course, but as someone who found fame during an age of pre-blog boosterism, Wes Anderson has survived critical exaltation (as well as hip-kid endorsement) thanks to the sincere emotional yearning that lurks beneath his tchotchke-like surfaces. Coasting on his quirks (which at this stage, veer dangerously close to self-parody), Anderson’s fifth feature, The Darjeeling Limited, is hardly an attempt to defy nature: Like a rearranged Mondrian grid, the film is drawn from the same life signs (a hard-on for sad-happy ’60s pop; broken family templates; and a decorative sense of composition) that set the benchmark for arch close to a decade ago, with the release of his sophomore hit Rushmore. Once again though, it’s the film’s heartfelt ode to family dysfunction which shines through, ensuring longevity in the face of its more fleeting visual pleasures.

In lieu of artistic growth, what Anderson opts for this time round is a geographical sea-change: Ditching the tweedy sites of wealth that he first plundered from Salinger and Fitzgerald (not to mention the fantastical oceanography of Cousteau), the director ships his leads off to India for the sake of a self-appointed “spiritual quest”. Uniting aboard the title locomotive – amidst a swab of embraces and high-dose painkillers – the Whitman brothers each conceal obvious emotional bruising: Aspiring writer Jack (Jason Schwartzman) is fleeing the ruins of his relationship with an unnamed ex (Natalie Portman, as detailed in the short, Hotel Chevalier, which precedes the film, and is viewable in full on this DVD release); Peter (Adrien Brody) can’t come to terms with the reality of his wife’s pregnancy; while Francis is recovering after deliberately driving his motorbike into a hillside. Face hidden in bandages, the appearance of Owen Wilson onscreen is understandably haunted by the tenor of his recent suicide attempt. Yet rather than hurt the film, by weighing it down with undue irony, tabloid hoopla meshes succinctly with character dimensions: Forced to endure comic liposuction, Wilson emerges as a rattled spectre – the routine brio stripped away from his goofball persona, as he indulges in sad self-scrutinies (“I guess I’ve still got a lot of healing to do”), while growing increasingly distressed at his realisation that the remaining two siblings are conspiring behind his back.

Nevertheless, as coordinator of the brothers’ reunion, he persists in the search for collective nirvana, issuing laminated itineraries (which he slides under Jack and Peter’s doors at the beginning of each new day), while otherwise enforcing a policy of full disclosure on all matters of emotional delicacy. For his part, Anderson complies with Francis’ whims by turning India into a hive of colour and activity – a fabled Orient in which the lure of the exotic nags agreeably at the comfort of the domestic. The posture is a ruse, of course. Unlike fellow bratpacker Sofia Coppola, who drew on that spectacle to promote a hip xenophobia with Lost in Translation, Darjeeling neither abuses its locale as an agent of catharsis, nor employs it as a gag in the spectacle of hipsters learning how to (re)connect with one another. Viewed from the safety of a train carriage, Anderson’s perfectly composed (down to each matching sari) vistas ultimately come to represent a kind of entrapment; they’re both totally self-revealing, and utterly depthless, hinting at the trio’s inability to ever fully escape the burden of being a tourist. (Towards the end of the film, for example, when Jack describes a short story he hopes to write based on the experience, he merely recapitulates, with blow-by-blow factuality, the events they’ve just experienced, as if the capacity for interpretation eluded him entirely).

Behaving otherwise, the Whitmans make every effort to connect with their surroundings – the dish of their sentiment handed out in gestures that range from pat culture clash (purchasing a snake, which, revealed to poisonous, escapes aboard the Darjeeling Limited) through to more tangled escapades of love and death. In the case of Jack, the pain of nurtured heartache is briefly laid to rest when he strikes up an affair with an Indian train stewardess, who, contrary to the story trope of deferring native, is revealed to be headstrong and independent, an impression rounded off by the soft patter of an imported British accent. But it’s only while walking alongside a river one day – after being expelled from the train for breaking out into a fight – that the Whitmans perversely discover the kind of purpose they seek: Tipped off by the sound of adolescent cries mingled with the howl of rushing water, they alight upon three young Indian boys whose rafts have capsized – and one of whom dies in the ensuing rescue process. After carrying the boy’s body back to his village, the trio are invited to attend his funeral the following day. Dressed entirely in white, they arrive on-screen in gruelling slow-motion, their solemn amble set to the sound of the Kink’s ‘Strangers’ (proving that even Death isn’t safe from Anderson’s musical inclinations). But before they can enter into cross-cultural mourning, Anderson curtails the purity of the moment – hinting at lodged trauma by cutting to a flashback where squabbling over the state of their deceased father’s Porsche nearly results in them missing his funeral.

The point isn’t that Anderson hates his characters; he’s simply distrustful of their attempts to find transcendence. Thus, hindered at every moment, the mock-altruism that drives Francis finally gives way to reveal the true motive underlying the siblings’ reunion, namely a desire to seek out their long-lost mother (Anjelica Huston), who, having abandoned them as children, is rumored to be hiding out in an Indian monastery. Despite her warnings against it, they seek her out, the pursuit resolving into another anti-climax after she escapes while they’re asleep. Nevertheless, the fact that she flees ends up enlightening on its own terms because it confirms that the aversion to responsibility is a birthright – the option of flunking out stitched reassuringly into the Whitmans’ DNA. Anderson may deny the impression of a Meaningful Journey by ending where we (almost) began – inside a train carriage, cigarettes perched defiantly in the actors’ mouths – but what he presents us with is the laid-back version of a sappy, moving truth: It’s family that counts. Emboldened by that knowledge, the Whitmans can finally return home a little more content than before.