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Published: Friday, 10/26/2007

Movie review: The Darjeeling Limited ***

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The emotional baggage in Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, which opens today in Toledo, was designed by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton. There are exactly 11 pieces. You'll want this emotional baggage; you'll ask for it for Christmas. It won't exist. It is expensive and smart and like everything in a Wes Anderson movie, it is designed with alarming exactitude, for him alone, unavailable to the average person; it comes in matching tans, with a pattern of palm trees and gazelles and apes, like a child's first Louis Vuitton set. Except it's carried by three adults, improbable brothers with prodigious noses, played by Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody, and Jason Schwartzman; summoned to India by Francis (Wilson) for vague reasons, they find themselves on a cross-continent train journey.

The kin are estranged.

At one point, their train is lost. "How does a train get lost?" Peter (Brody) asks. "Do we know where we are at least?" Jack (Schwartzman) asks. So Francis inquires. "They haven't located us yet," he says, then stops, "We ... haven't ... located ... us ... yet- symbolic!"

Turns out, Francis has lured them to India on a questionable pretense. They haven't seen each other in a year, not since their father died and their mother (Angelica Huston) disappeared. Against a backdrop of intricate Indian patterns and cool aqua palettes, the brothers, self-absorbed spectators, focus on themselves - this is a storybook India, as artificial as anything in an Anderson picture, not to be confused with the place (with one sad exception later in the film). But Francis says he wants them to know each other better.

His head is damaged, bandaged up like the Ghost of Christmas Past; in an eerie coincidence with the real Wilson, the character likely tried to kill himself. And it's left him sentimental, nostalgic for a time that didn't exist. But sympathy is fleeting with this family, and the three set out on a spiritual mystery tour that hangs a left at the Three Stooges and includes a can of mace - a lovely little sequence of physical comedy. Amid the opulence and exacting eccentricity, I'd forgotten Anderson can be loose, even funny.

But about the baggage.

They lug it across India.

Symbolic! A metaphor!

Then again, emotional baggage in a Wes Anderson picture tends to be the same as the tangible kind, only less fussed over. Anderson, whose movies include The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore, has quite a following, despite a precious Fisher-Price playset aesthetic that has smothered his promise - this limitless admiration for things, an insufferable hipness over heart, which drives some nuts and others to swoon, this obsession with objects, arranged just so in each frame, color-coordinated within an inch of life. Couple that doll-house sensibility with an homage to Indian director Satyajit Ray (Anderson uses lots of Ray's original music), and a little manic Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night), and Darjeeling feels like an elaborate Advent calendar, with a new designer tchotchke to be found behind every door.

But it's not exhausting.

Which is what I expected.

Instead, it's very much what I think Anderson intended - a light travelogue of small consequence, with a slight, though sincere and concerned effort to bring a heart back into his films.

Actually, I'm surprised we're at this point. With Rushmore, a half-dozen years ago, Bill Murray was allowed to do more with his eyes than many actors expressed with their mouths; Anderson's steadily creeping formality couldn't derail The Royal Tenenbaums a few years later. But by the time of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, that whimsical quaintness had played itself out and become an end to itself, a dreary approximation of spontaneity and "awkwardness." The bad news about The Darjeeling Limited is it's hard to lose that feeling we're primarily meant to be admiring scenery, the way a turban matches a set of drapes.

So it goes without saying the film looks great, but the better news is that, as The Darjeeling Limited rolls on, raw emotion funnels through, bit by bit. And something surprising happens: Anderson begins to comment on himself, and even wakes up. You could argue that without his quirks, Anderson wouldn't be Anderson, but then, out of nowhere, a character questions the sanity of a $6,000 leather belt. In a wonderful short that opens the film, Hotel Chevalier, co-starring Natalie Portman, Schwartzman has decided to have a nervous breakdown in what appears to be $2,000-a-night extravagance.

The Darjeeling Limited leaves you wondering what it all means, but I doubt Anderson would have a problem with that assessment. "We're just trying to experience something," Francis explains later, and you can use a line like this against Anderson, or you could take it as a promise. His movies, and his work, is his way of working out the quirks.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com or 419-724-6117.



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