Editor’s Note: A different version of this review appeared in the print edition of the Oct. 25 City Weekly. After press time, it was announced that the short film Hotel Chevalier would be included with The Darjeeling Limited as of Oct. 26. This version represents that change.
Members of the general public who pay to see Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited will not be seeing the “prequel” short Hotel Chevalier as part of the program. Apparently those 10 minutes can’t be spared for theaters that have to fit in their half-hour of previews, MovieFone ads and vanity trailers for the sound system.
As a practical artistic matter, there’s also the possibility that Hotel Chevalier—which is available for download on iTunes—doesn’t do The Darjeeling Limited any favors by comparison. In 10 minutes, Anderson efficiently establishes the familiarity between once-lovers Natalie Portman and Jason Schwartzman as they reconnect in the Paris hotel room where the latter has holed himself away to mourn their relationship. Their terse exchanges are all about uncomfortable history and how hard it is to get beyond that history—and we know all this about Schwartzman’s character before we even know his name.
Yet once the feature proper begins—and Schwartzman is identified as Jack Whitman—Anderson seems to lose interest in him as a person. In the decade he’s been making films like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson has often been dismissed as a craftsman of glass-globe cinematic worlds, all precise Precious Moments composition without true heart. This is the case where those criticisms feel most dead-on.
Like most of Anderson’s films, this one deals with strained family relations. Semi-estranged brothers Jack, Peter (Adrien Brody) and Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson) have gotten together—at Francis’ invitation, inspired by the near-death accident that has left his head swaddled in gauze—for the first time since their father’s funeral a year earlier. On a train in India, the siblings seek out some sort of spiritual awakening, and perhaps even a meeting with their long-absent mother (Anjelica Huston) at the Himalayan convent where she has taken up residence.
We learn just enough about each of the brothers to provide some sort of shorthand motivation for specific actions. Oldest brother Francis casually serves as surrogate parent by ordering his brothers’ meals and providing an itinerary for their journey. Peter and his wife are expecting their first child, which Peter dreads since he assumes all marriages end in divorce. And as for writer Jack—well, I dare anyone who hasn’t seen Hotel Chevalier to glean much about where he’s coming from.
The problem with Anderson’s script—co-written by Schwartzman and Roman Coppola—is that the dynamic between the brothers never feels organic. Their travelogue feels entirely like a structure on which to pin quirky moments: a fight in which Jack assaults Francis and Peter with pepper spray; a flashback to the funeral day and an attempt to retrieve their father’s car from a mechanic; a bungled attempt at some sort of ritual involving peacock feathers. Individual moments inspire chuckles, but they don’t add up. Whatever these guys are trying to sort out, whatever demons haunt them from their childhood, it’s a mystery to us.
This absence of a true emotional core makes it hard to deal with a more serious plot turn involving the death of a child. It’s supposed to be a moment of awakening for the Whitman boys—and particularly for Jack—but they’re too sketchily drawn for their sadness to matter compared to the shattering grief of the boy’s father (the great Irrfan Khan). It’s all just another machination in Anderson World—and because it involves a child’s death, it feels like a cruel cheat.
Late in the film, the Whitman family shares a silent moment together that’s supposed to convey all that has gone unspoken between them. We watch as characters from their lives roll by on individual train cars—the rail conductor from their journey, the dead boy’s brothers, even Natalie Portman in a cameo appearance that will make little sense outside its Hotel Chevalier context. It’s almost too easy a summation of what Anderson is doing here: confining people to limited spaces, where they exist only in the context of how they played a part in this particular narrative. By the time he resorts to one of the clumsiest metaphors you’ll see on a movie screen all year—Hint: It involves actual baggage—it’s clear that Anderson hasn’t allowed his characters any room to breathe. Only in that Paris hotel room can they find some real soul.
THE DARJEELING LIMITED