The best moments of Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, located in the wash of his trademark serio-comic pretensions, are the quietest. Illuminated by a campfire, Jack Whitman (Jason Schwartzman) wonders aloud whether he and his two brothers—Francis (Owen Wilson) and Peter (Adrien Brody)—would have ever been friends, "not just as brothers but as people."
It is a jarring, profound scene, fueled by the paradox that while family is ostensibly the strongest of bonds, it is the one human relationship not formed by free association or commonality of personality, ideals or principles, but mere biology and/or living arrangements.
Years after the untimely death of their father, the elder Francis invites his brothers aboard the titular trainline for a voyage across India. Francis, heavily bandaged from a recent automobile wreck that apparently left him with an epiphany of brotherhood, embarks on a self-described "spiritual journey" as an ad hoc search for healing and inner peace. A collective of deep-seated neuroses, the Whitman brothers are, like most of us, the sum of those who reared them, from Francis' unintentional mimicry of his absentee mother's controlling persona to Peter's filching of his dad's personal effects, even down to sporting the old man's prescription sunglasses (the better to see the world through his father's eyes, no doubt).
In many ways, Darjeeling Limited plays like a companion to Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums —imagine the Tenenbaum siblings' reunion years after their patriarch's death. Indeed, this film might well be viewed as the anchor leg to Anderson's unofficial Daddy trilogy, preceded by Tenenbaums and the otherwise derisible The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. After spending their entire Indian odyssey lugging around monogrammed luggage inherited from their father, it is only after literally and figuratively letting go of their baggage that the Whitmans are able to grab hold of their own destiny.
Ironically, letting go of the past seems to be the dilemma facing Anderson the filmmaker. He remains a master of photography, making daedal use of space, reflections, angles and fluid camera movements. Filmed on location in India, Anderson inhabits the landscape of Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray, which includes incorporating film score music composed by Ray into an eclectic soundtrack also comprising Beethoven, "Play with Fire" by The Rolling Stones and selections from The Kinks' 1970 album, Lola vs. the Powerman and the Money-Go-Round, Pt. 1.
At the same time, there is a regurgitative quality to Anderson's last couple of works, including the repeat casting of Anderson mainstays such as Wilson, Schwartzman and Anjelica Huston—Anderson even manages to find room for a Bill Murray cameo. The performances are uniformly terrific, but a lesser screenplay would relegate them into a state of self-parody.
Darjeeling Limited plays like, well, a Wes Anderson film. However, his most geographically removed work is arguably his most accessible, poetic and poignant one to date. It is self-regarding yet deeply personal, steeped in the ebb and flow of a life spent heading toward an unknown destination. While gazing into a mirror with his kid brothers, Francis at one point removes the thick bandages encasing his injured visage, revealing the deep wounds remaining underneath. In a moment of art imitating life, Francis/Owen Wilson confesses, "I guess I've still got a lot of healing to do." Don't we all. —Neil Morris
The Darjeeling Limited opens Friday in select theaters.
Lars and the Real Girl might be this fall's Little Miss Sunshine, which you can take as either an endorsement or a warning.
Like Sunshine, Lars takes deep, psychological dysfunction—in this case, a lonely man's delusional acceptance of a "love doll" as real—and uses it as the backdrop for sitcom laughs and heartwarming sentiment.
On a situation that could and has been done as a darker psychological piece, such as in 2003's little-seen Love Object, this conceit is simply played as a sweet comedy—like a Frank Capra movie about an Internet sex toy. But there are other times when it works as a complex character study, thanks in part to strong performances from Ryan Gosling and the supporting cast.
Gosling's Lars is a painfully withdrawn resident of a small, snowbound town. He lives in a converted garage next to the house of his brother (All the Real Girls' Paul Schneider) and pregnant sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer), who literally has to wrestle him to the ground to get him to attend a family dinner. Even with his thick moustache and layers of sweaters that might as well be a full-body condom, Lars is well-liked—and even has a cute co-worker (Kelli Garner) interested in him. But he's clearly ill at ease with people and handles every conversation with another person as though he's trying to shoo away an uninvited houseguest.
Hence, it's surprising but not shocking when he orders a life-sized doll he claims is a half-Brazilian, half-Danish missionary named Bianca. The local doctor (an underused Patricia Clarkson) urges Lars' family to humor his delusion, and soon all the townsfolk are having their own one-sided conversations with the wheelchair-bound Bianca. It gets to the point where Bianca has a more active social calendar than Lars himself.
The script, by Six Feet Under writer Nancy Oliver, doesn't go for big breakdown scenes—there are no moments of Lars in the fetal position or getting beaten up for his delusion. In fact, the film goes out of its way to paint Lars' relationship with Bianca in an almost wholesome light—it's immediately established that Bianca sleeps in a separate room from Lars, who treats her in a courtly manner when they're alone. (The film depicts Bianca's effect on Lars in such a positive light that it might create a real-life surge in love doll sales.)
There's some real potential here for exploring the cause of Lars' delusion, but aside from a few short scenes, the film treats this delusion as a short-term disease that simply has to play out. The direction, by Mr. Woodcock's Craig Gillespie, does a good job of establishing the wintry setting but doesn't add much else to the story—relying instead on shocked, uncomfortable reactions to Bianca for laughs (and getting most of them, if the riotous laughter at the screening I attended is any indication).
Still, the film is very effective when it hints at the issues surrounding Lars' delusion, aided by solid performances from the cast. Gosling, one of the best younger actors in Hollywood, cleverly plays against his heartthrob image from The Notebook with Lars, investing him with a charmingly goofy sense of awkwardness. There's also excellent work from Schneider and Mortimer, with the former showing a real flair for comic timing. While Lars at times feels like an extended sitcom episode, like a certain crowd-pleaser from a year ago, that's no impediment to success. Take from that what you will. —Zack Smith
Lars and the Real Girl opens Friday in select theaters.