By Ray Pride
Any picture that opens with Bill Murray wearing a trim, too-small fedora poked atop his head while in suit and tie in a getaway taxi through the crowded, colorful streets of a city in India can’t be all bad.
In fact, “The Darjeeling Limited,” Wes Anderson’s serio-comic follow-up to the (at least to these eyes) disastrous “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” (written with co-star Jason Schwartzman and second-unit director Roman Coppola) is the best thing he’s done since “Rushmore.” Storybook preciousness of color and frame recur, as does the sight of thirtysomething male characters working out wounds bequeathed by their fathers. Still, there’s an intriguing growth in temperament. While some elements still might make the construction of the movie seem not everything but the kitchen sink, but a kitchen sink full of kitchen sinks, matters deepen, moods darken.
Three brothers are brought together a year after the death of their father by Francis (Owen Wilson, whose head is garishly bandaged for most of the movie), the emotionally tone-deaf, millionaire control freak of the family. Jack (Jason Schwartzman) is a writer, and Peter (Adrien Brody), well, he just looks like he’s always ready to burst into tears, except at the prospect of purchasing a poisonous snake. This is mismatched casting of siblings that is almost as bold as Luis Buñuel having two actresses interchangeably play the same role in “That Obscure Object of Desire.” Yet their constipated, passive-aggressive pissiness is of a suit. Soon you are convinced by this trio, this Larry, Curly and Moe with the vapors.
The notion of naming the three brothers Francis, Jack and Peter seems to superficially allude to the 1970s Francis Coppola, Jack Nicholson and Peter Bogdanovich. Anderson is a pal of Bogdanovich, and co-writer Roman Coppola is Francis’ son and Schwartzman is Francis’ nephew—and an allusion to the Beatles’ guru-hopping with Schwartzman always in trim suit and barefoot, a la a very alive Paul. A one-note in-joke, perhaps, but once on the train, Jack does work Nicholson moves on a stewardess, Rita (Amara Karan), who has the widest, the brightest, the wettest brown eyes, barefoot in emerald fish scale-patterned silk, proving that at long last Anderson is getting moony about a less brooding form of female beauty. (A later shot of a woman’s bare back seen from a mirror inside a compartment has a light whiff of Velasquez to it.)
But the movie snaps to from the brothers’ petulant behavior after the classic line blurted by one of the brothers, “Look at these assholes.” What follows changes the trio, and the movie, for the better. Anderson admits drawing on Jean Renoir’s great “The River” (a restored version is showing at Chicago International). At this point the movie is no longer “The Life Sub-Asian With Wes Anderson”: “The Darjeeling Limited” transforms into a different, unruly beast, a knowing self-critique of moneyed ego-tourism performed by the well-off with unexamined lives. The film is not dismissive, yet its characters’ shortcomings are fully on display. The world wounds. Cauterization fails. Suicide attempts are bad. Mourning requires the rest of your life. (And if Anjelica Huston plays your mother, you will wonder why she’s chosen such a distant retreat.)
What’s missing, for the moment, is the preamble, Anderson’s 2004 short “Hotel Chevalier,” which was shown at festivals and to reviewers in 35mm widescreen and premiered at Apple stores, and is now available to download from iTunes, YouTube and elsewhere. (It might be added later.) Schwartzman’s writer character invites his ex, played by Natalie Portman, for one last bit of damage. (Download a version that runs at least 10:11 for a taster that’s like a parallel to scenes and themes in the feature). Anderson’s angling for the brittle ache of a short-fiction lapidarist like James Salter, and the attempt, when men and women bruise one another but also share a balcony moment with “my view of Paris,” is worthy. With the already-notorious profile nude of Portman in sweat socks only, calf kicked back in an arabesque that approximates Jean Paul Goode’s iconic 1978 nude of his muse, Grace Jones, it is sweet enough in its casual cruelty to be Anderson’s least hermetic, likely best film to date, and I could either live or die with the line, “I promise you I will never be your friend, ever.” (The refrain “Sweet lime?” is swell, too.) Robert Yeoman shot the bold colors; the impossibly crisp costumes are by Milena Canonero, of “Reds,” “The Godfather,” “Chariots of Fire” and “Barry Lyndon.”
“The Darjeeling Limited” opens Friday.