New Yorker: “A Strange, Long Trip”

February 25, 2008, DVD review by Richard Brody (link)

It’s unjust that the Academy didn’t nominate Wes Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Limited” (Fox) in any category, but inexplicable that they didn’t invent a special one for it: Best Luggage. An exquisite set of suitcases, credited to Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, plays a large role in this blissful, loopy comedy of family anguish and sublimated tenderness.

The film’s subject is coming home, and it’s a sign of Anderson’s comic genius that it takes a picaresque jaunt through India by three brothers, estranged since their father’s funeral a year ago, to do so. The domineering Francis (Owen Wilson), who is recovering from a motorcycle accident, has convened the other two—Peter (Adrien Brody), a regular guy in a panic over the impending birth of his first child, and Jack (Jason Schwartzman), a literary romantic trapped in a troubled relationship—for a “spiritual journey,” which he plans down to the minute.

The trip brings odd misadventure, off-kilter romance, and sudden danger, but the real story involves coming to terms with a lifetime of ingrained resentments plus grief of more recent vintage. For Anderson, such troubles are too big to blurt out without bathos and ridicule. Following other Wasp modernists such as Hemingway and Howard Hawks, he relies on high style, sly gestures, and arch pranks to evoke intense emotion with bite and grace. His tight, sketchlike structures bring out the best in his actors, especially Schwartzman (who co-wrote the script with Anderson and Roman Coppola), a Dustin Hoffman for our time, who doles out Zen wisdom with a carnal leer. In Anderson’s world of brothers without sisters, the ribald rituals of male bonding suggest the unfathomable otherness of women—including the trio’s mother (Anjelica Huston), whose life haunts them no less than their father’s death and who turns out to be the real reason for their trip.

Where people prove elusive, material things play an outsized, totemic role. The brothers’ grudges emerge in their wrangling over their father’s relics—glasses, keys, toiletries—but pride of place goes to his luggage. Dark tan, finely tooled, and adorned with a faux-naïf intaglio of wild animals, it follows them around on their journey at great inconvenience, a perfect, literal metaphor for their heavy emotional baggage.

The film begins with a neat dose of backstory: a short preface, featuring Jack holed up in a luxurious Paris hotel before his passage to India, where he receives a surprise visit from the woman he adores (Natalie Portman, chomping a toothpick, her hair cropped martially short). Movingly, stoically, whimsically, Anderson suggests the difficult self-restraint and self-mastery that the most intimate relationships demand. Love, in his book, is tolerance and acceptance—facing up to pain in order to take the pleasure that’s given.

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