Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With the release of Gia Coppola’s new movie, Mainstream, we’re highlighting other work from the extended Coppola family.
The Darjeeling Limited starts in media res with Wes Anderson stalwart Bill Murray rushing to make a train. The action sequence is a grift, though. Subverting the expectations of viewers, who might think they’re in store for another dollhouse tale of old men dealing with their screwed-up offspring, one of the film’s actual leads, Adrien Brody, outpaces Murray, catches the train, and wrestles control of the narrative away from Anderson’s past. This isn’t Rushmore or The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. We’re in uncharted territory, and that goes beyond the film’s overseas location.
Written by Anderson and two new writing collaborators, Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, The Darjeeling Limited is often cited as the director’s worst film. But its problems are in service of something greater: getting Anderson out of his comfort zone. Sure, there are plenty of god’s-eye shots, characters who dress exclusively in metaphor, and maladjusted large adult sons pining for parental affection. But with the help of the Coppolas (Schwartzman is the son of Oscar-nominated actor Talia Shire, who in turn is the sister of Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola), the filmmaker was able to make his most freewheeling movie since his debut feature, Bottle Rocket.
Darjeeling follows the Whitman brothers, Jack (Schwartzman), Francis (Owen Wilson), and Peter (Brody), as they travel by train across India following the death of their father. Still reeling from the trauma, the three wear their pain in the form of totems from their past and personality traits picked up from their parents. Like many white people before them, they hope that the waters of the Ganges will heal them of a lifetime of dysfunction. Jack, a short story writer with youngest child syndrome, frequently insists that his characters are strictly fictional. All the same, it’s hard not to read the principles of Darjeeling as stand-ins for the writers who created them. Francis directs the trip like Anderson directs a movie. Peter spends much of the runtime behind his father’s prescription sunglasses, which look exactly like the ones worn by Roman Coppola in his Wikipedia photo. And Jack is, well, Schwartzman.
Darjeeling marks the first collaboration between Roman Coppola and Anderson, one of the director’s most consistent partnerships since Owen Wilson. But while Coppola shook Anderson loose, eventually helping him to greater heights with Moonrise Kingdom, the writers develop some questionable new habits that would haunt Anderson’s work later. It’s a little icky the way Darjeeling treats an entire country and its 1.2 billion occupants like a therapeutic tool for three white guys; none of the people the brothers meet along the way are characters, exactly. (It’s the kind of cultural tourism that would define Anderson’s Isle Of Dogs, which worked from a story conceived by Coppola, Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura.) Yet for all the script’s faults, its cowriters helped Anderson tap into a new mode of storytelling without beginnings or endings. The director would revisit this circular structure to greater effect in arguably his best work, The Grand Budapest Hotel.
The Darjeeling Limited is better than its reputation suggests. It’s funny and beautiful in all the ways Anderson’s fans and critics know, but with an Altman-esque looseness that feels fresh and exciting and endlessly surprising in a way Anderson’s more rigorously composed films don’t. There’s also a killer soundtrack featuring the music of legendary Bengali director Satyajit Ray, Peter Sarstedt’s Paris-inspired earworm “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely),” and, of course, three great Kinks songs. These are Anderson’s most unlikable characters to date, yet we’re strangely closer to them, a part of their journey. With a vital assist from his cowriters, the director frees himself from some of the constraints of his meticulously orchestrated style and embraces messiness. It’s endearing to see him loosen his grip and enjoy the ride.