Instant Karma Ain’t No Trip to Cleveland

    Wes Anderson’s films
    always have a sense of perpetual autumn about them — bittersweet almost to a
    fault. And while his fifth feature, “The Darjeeling Limited,” exists among
    India’s visually lush landscapes, that creeping sense of browning leaves and
    blustery nights seems to ever invade its countryside.

    The savant at Fox
    Searchlight who decided it would be a novel idea to detach a feature film
    dependent on its corresponding short should be set ablaze. Wes Anderson’s
    12-minute “Hotel Chevalier” is the most critical aspect to fully appreciating
    “The Darjeeling Limited,” and it’s been foolishly thrown exclusively to iTunes.
    The short boasts the most mature writing of the director’s career, as “Darjeeling”’s Jack confronts an ex (Natalie Portman) in a
    Parisian hotel two weeks before the India expedition.

    We first glimpse
    Jack cloaked in yellow, watching the POW thriller “Stalag 17” on TV — an
    appropriate choice, as he then sees his own POW status once Portman’s
    aggressive alpha female enters the room in a gray raincoat. What proceeds is a
    survey of sexual dominance and submission in a relationship where dodgy
    dialogue masks each character’s intentions and desires; Jack wants love in
    order to feel like he lives the life he imagines, while his ex just wants a
    good fuck. It is brutal, heartbreaking and a sure sign of Anderson’s ripening
    artistry as a writer-director, far beyond the adolescent charm of “Rushmore,”
    sending his naive Max Fischer into the ever-confusing universe of adulthood.

    Perhaps this time
    around, it has to do with the voyeurs whose eyes we tour through: the three
    Whitman brothers, who find themselves on a spiritual journey — both by will and
    by force — stemming from a proverbial how-to list of ways to avoid grieving
    their dead father, who triggers surprisingly strong emotion from his oddball
    offspring despite an obvious detachment from their upbringing.

    So the Whitmans
    gather aboard the titular train, not having spoken since the funeral. Eldest
    brother Francis (Owen Wilson), scarred literally and figuratively by his own
    control issues, organizes the sojourn; Peter (Adrien Brody), the middle child,
    is only there to escape his impending fatherhood; while the youngest, tortured writer
    Jack (Jason Schwartzman), sports a Sgt. Pepper’s moustache and tries constantly
    to construct his own reality via iPod and a series of “fictional” short
    stories. As they turn their trip into a drug-fueled bender, we realize the trio
    is nothing more than half-cultured band of tourists.

    Cramped in the
    rickety train, Anderson’s signature dry wit
    takes a backseat to the emotional core of “Darjeeling,” as opposed to side-by-side
    seating on past go-rounds. Each comedic
    vignette — Peter buying a snake, Jack convincing himself he’s in love, Francis
    losing a shoe — is more for dramatic revelation than simple laughter. But the
    real maturation goes to seed once the boys have arrived in a remote desert
    village: Anderson
    combines his notorious pans, zooms, slow-mos and camera tracks for some of the
    most stirring visuals he’s ever recorded. After a stirring riverside rescue,
    the village sequence opens in muted contemplation, finally erupting into an
    emotional reawakening — courtesy of the Kinks — that strips each brother off
    his guard and forces them to at last revisit the family’s past. And, in Anderson’s most
    cinematically compelling sequence to date, the three siblings noiselessly
    reconcile to the Rolling Stones’ “Play With Fire,” together connecting the
    universal dots between all those who grieve.

    Even rabid
    Wes-ophiles will require multiple “Darjeeling
    viewings for full appreciation of its many subtle yet significant touches,
    particularly a cameo by Bill Murray and a mystery man on the train (remember
    Pagoda?). At first, it’s difficult to understand the change in the Whitman
    boys, their dialogue steering clear of audible affirmation; more than ever, Anderson employs his
    dialogue-as-shield technique to a degree that may be — much like the auteur’s
    “Rushmore” or “The Royal Tenenbaums” — offsetting to first-timers looking for
    direct transformation.

    While we’re on it,
    save yourself the trouble of comparing “Darjeeling
    to Anderson’s
    previous films altogether. Each is a distinct entry into the 38 year-old’s
    adult storybook and a necessary stepping stone for one of the only novel
    filmmakers under the hill. And if you’re not keen on Anderson’s universe, spare us your
    pontification on the director’s “pretentiousness” (which often includes such
    overwrought, empty pokes as “hipster” and, the most heinous attack: “quirky”).
    This innovator’s works are of their own logic, islands to normalcy, much like
    Jack on the train: cold to some, welcoming to others. If you do buy the ticket,
    be prepared for a bumpy ride alongside fellow Lawn Wranglers, Rushmore
    Beekeepers, family geniuses and proud cadets of the Zissou Society.

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