Soul-searching train

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Wes Anderson films give the simultaneous feelings of authenticity and artifice, if that is possible. From his earliest work, “Bottle Rocket” to his most recent, “The Darjeeling Limited,” he specializes in wisps of a story that can create settings marked with the tangibility of its surroundings, feature dialogue (fractured as it may be) that rings genuine, but still create characters that exist on an alternate reality altogether.

Whether it’s Owen Wilson’s esoteric criminal Dignan in 1996’s “Rocket,” Jason Schwartzman’s lovelorn prep school student Max in 1998’s “Rushmore” or Bill Murray’s jiving, maniacal boat captain in 2004’s “Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” the roles are more characters of some idiosyncratic sonnet than actual leads in a film. But it is in these characters that Anderson creates moments of naked sincerity that can be most affecting.

This can infuriate some critics and audience members, while others read Anderson fables like comfy slippers. His following may be limited (and limiting), but passionate.

With Anderson’s latest, “Darjeeling,” you can pass me the cup of Kool-Aid, because I am a card-carrying member of his cult.

Like his pervious works, though, this film will have its fair share of those who feel the director’s latest is just another navel-gazing slice of ostentatious musings – pretty pictures strung together with the faintest thread of story – and they would not be too far off… perhaps.

It’s a tale of three brothers (Schwartzman, Wilson and Anderson newcomer Adrian Brody), who embark on a spiritual quest after a year’s estrangement following the death of their father.

The fact that none of the well-heeled brothers are particularly spiritual or particularly close adds to the moments of subtly comedic awkwardness.

The film is actually a celebration of this awkwardness – from the opening visage of Wilson’s tattered, bandaged face from an “accident,” to their rivalry of who was their father’s favorite. For in dealing with death, there is no standard procedure, despite however many books are written on the subject.

They are compressed into a railcar winding through the mountainous terrain of India in an attempt to make sense of their familial dysfunction and perhaps their own lot in life.

The film begins with Brody racing alongside an older potential passenger (in a cameo by Anderson faithful Bill Murray) to catch a train. Unable to part with his cumbersome baggage, Murray collapses in exhaustion. It is a scene that seems inconsequential, but features prominently in the film’s finale.

And that is typical of an Anderson film. Tiny kernels of seemingly innocuous celluloid returning to greater prominence later in the picture.

This is not to say that “Darjeeling” is a more comedic version of the deeply meditative study on family, life and death in the vein of, say, David Cronenberg’s brilliant “Eastern Promises,” but it is a film that blossoms upon reflection. In fact, even calling the film “comedic” is overselling it. For it is scattered with funny moments, but there are none involving laugh-out-loud hilarity that one would expect from standard studio fare.

The marquee names that co-habitate Anderson’s world – as fun as they are – may actually be a deterrent to the average filmgoers, expecting to see Wilson’s zany surfer shtick, or moments of Schwartzman’s stammering schmuck. But they float on the wind of words that Anderson provides, gently flittering and floating on the breeze.

And when they reach their own private epiphanies, Anderson’s sincerity as a writer is as open and honest as you will find.

He is also one hell of a visualist. Each scene seems sculpted to its tiniest detail, even when they are as featuring vistas of the mountainous terrain of their journey. These are punctuated by the now-standard off-kilter Anderson soundtrack, here featuring seemingly random songs from Satyajit Ray, The Kinks and an effective use of the Rolling Stones’ “Play With Fire.”

This is not a film that will showered with awards come Oscar time, nor will it win over any more converts from the uninitiated, but it will more than satiate those who have come to respect and appreciate the eccentricities that inhabit an Anderson film.

The director may not posses the flashy flourishes, in front of or behind the camera, of his much-admired contemporaries, but he is creating a quiet lyrical universe to which more than a few of us are happy to make return visits.

Note: The film is preceded by a “Hotel Chevalier,” a 13-minute short that was available for download for free on iTunes (but has since been removed from all sites to be shown with the film), which features Schwartzman’s character and a cameo by a naked Natalie Portman. Though it figures only nominally into the “Darjeeling,” it provides a wonderful mini-portal for those unaccustomed to Anderson’s style.

~ by usesoapfilm on October 30, 2007.

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