Dir: Wes Anderson USA 2007. 91 mins.
Wes Anderson treads water, or maybe lime tea, with The Darjeeling Limited, the latest quirky philosophical comedy from the US maverick. This tale of three brothers who meet up on an Indian train to bond and find themselves has a kooky, laid back charm and is full of Anderson's trademark themes and surreal eye candy, but ultimately, for all its offbeat wit and road-to-enlightenment send-ups, it feels a little thin - more poppadum (albeit a fresh and spicy one) than chapati.
Unusually, Darjeeling comes with a stand-alone prologue, a short 13- minute film called Hotel Chevalier, which according to a note from the director distributed to journalists at Venice, 'is a separate story...slightly related to the main feature.
It will not be shown in theatres but instead on the internet and also at film festivals and on the DVD'.
Commercially, Darjeeling will keep the Anderson faithful happy but is unlikely to add many new recruits to the fanbase.
Owen Wilson's recent suicide attempt (which was followed by the announcement that the star had dropped out of his next project, Tropic Thunder) may stir some ghoulish box-office interest - especially given the uncanny parallels with the backstory of Francis Whitman, the character he plays here.
But Wilson is, after all, an Anderson regular, and the director's mature, media-savvy audience will probably be equally excited by the addition of a deliciously deadpan Adrien Brody to the Anderson stable. DVD prospects look rosy, especially in view of the prologue-extra bait.
Another Anderson teammate, Bill Murray, makes an appearance right at the beginning of the main feature as a businessman running to make the cross-country Indian train that gives the film its title.
But this turns out to be a mere cameo, as Murray misses the Darjeeling Limited and we are left, on the train, in the company of the three Whitman brothers: the eldest, anal control-freak Francis (Wilson), his head swathed in bandages from a recent motorbike accident; the middle one, Peter (Brody), a responsibility-fugitive whose wife is about to have a baby back in the States; and the youngest, Jack (Jason Schwartzman, who also co-penned the script), a writer of short stories which turn out to be near-verbatim accounts of episodes involving his odd family and its traumas.
Francis has summoned his two brothers to India to reconnect with them a year after their father's death. He hands out detailed daily schedules prepared by an alopecia-afflicted research assistant who's travelling in another carriage, and also has a secret agenda: to find the trio's mother - played, of course, by Anjelica Huston - who has become a Catholic nun and moved to a remote convent in the Himalayas (echoes here of Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus are just one from the usual Anderson crop of cinematic and cultural references).
If the film itself meanders, occasionally finding itself in stagnant backwaters, the chemistry between the three leads really works, and Darjeeling is peppered (at one point literally) with enjoyable scenes that steer a classic Anderson course between the surreal, the downright comic and the poignant.
As in the director's previous film, The Life Aquatic, there's a shocking moment of real human tragedy, but it comes off more convincingly this time round, serving to jolt the brothers into a connection with the vibrant, spiritual country they're travelling through.
Less persuasive is a flashback scene featuring a cameo by director Barbet Schroeder as a car mechanic, which breaks the rhythm of a voyage that is constantly teetering on the brink of inconsequentiality.
It takes Anjelica Huston to put the train back on its rails: she makes the most of her limited screen time, pulling off the difficult act of making her character utterly believable while never losing contact with the film's quirky sense of humour.
And as we have come to expect from Anderson, the film is a visual treat. The decision to film on a real, moving Indian train may have caused technical headaches (especially given that the director is no fan of handheld takes) but it keeps things feeling fresh and spontaneous.
Production designer Mark Friederg plays up the colourful chaos and retro kitsch of India in his train decor, and Milena Canonero's costume design is also spot-on. Darjeeling also has the bonus of a tasty, collectable soundtrack of classic pop and rock (Peter Sarstedt's song Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) is a running theme) and traditional Indian music - including a number of pieces by Ravi Shankar and others from vintage Indian films.
Hotel Chevalier, the short film which acts as an independent prologue to the main feature and precedes its action chronologically, is set in a Paris hotel room where Jack receives a surprise visit from an ex-girlfriend (played by a crop-haired Nathalie Portman) who is mentioned but never seen in Darjeeling. It's an enjoyably oddball accompaniment to an enoyably oddball film.
Fox Searchlight Pictures and
an American Empirical Picture