There is a style of comedy now in fashion which breaks the long-standing assumption that comedy should be funny. This trend was the subject of a Rolling Stone cover story last September.
This new comedy sans drôle is practiced, for example, by the current writers of CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman, and it’s one of the reasons I have not enjoyed that show the last few years as much as I used to. You see it in bits like wardrobe supervisor Sue Hum suddenly standing, silent and peeved, somewhere near Dave. The awkwardness intensifies, then abruptly ends without any comedic payoff or reason to laugh except anxiety.
Filmmaker Wes Anderson has built a brilliant career out of bringing similar awkwardness to the silver screen — and not just ordinary awkwardness, but beautifully composed and photographed awkwardness. Two of his characters will be struggling through an uncomfortable exchange, and meanwhile, watching this, you cannot help but admire the perfect symmetry of the way the room is framed, the beautiful contrast of the blueish dusk outside against the yellowish interior lamplight on the outstanding antique table, and the graceful path of the pair as the camera glides around them.
The DVD for The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson’s 2007 film about three brothers on a trip to India, presents the main film as Part 2, with Part 1 being Hotel Chevalier, his 13-minute film featuring a dazed Jason Schwartzman and a nude Natalie Portman in a cumbersome rendezvous at an elegant old Paris hotel, and also the 1969 song “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)” by Peter Sarstedt.
You’re still humming the song, stunned by Natalie Portman’s stark nakedness, and wondering what sort of impaired person would write such a story when Part 2 begins and Adrien Brody is catching a train in India, The Darjeeling Limited, to join his two brothers Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman. The three are dealing with parental abandonment issues, and reuniting for the first time since their father died. Bill Murray also makes a couple of brief, ethereal appearances in a nonspeaking role.
Essentially, the Whitman brothers are a more modern, educated, affluent and neurotic Three Stooges, with Owen Wilson’s character playing the Moe role. He’s the domineering trip arranger, purportedly trying to steer the other two knuckleheads into a shared spiritual experience, despite his being incredibly shallow and preoccupied with material possessions — particularly those of his late father. Wilson’s head is extensively bandaged through most of the movie as the result of a motorcycle mishap.
The other two are dark and brooding, with their own peculiar quirks. Schwartzman is a bad writer who unsuccessfully fictionalizes his own life and has a lot of casual sex. Brody is timid, resentful, and disconnected from his wife, whom he says is soon to give birth.
All three of the brothers are compulsive smokers who take a wide array of “medications.”
The awkward, abrasive interaction of the trio, sprinkled with softspoken digs and insinuations enhanced by their close quarters, clacks along for 30 minutes amid the the beautifully colored and exotic setting of a the train rolling across India with its exquisitely photographed extras and ornaments and signage and baggage.
Then, just when you’re wondering whether the movie will go anywhere at all, some things happen. It turns out there is at least a destination for the trip, and on the way there, the brothers have a harrowing adventure and a frustrating flashback. Anjelica Huston has a small role.
Nothing in the movie’s story is any better than the long, gliding camera shot that eventually passes through the train from car to car, briefly considering the occupants in each one — although the traffic sequence which opens the film is fine stuff too. Robert D. Yeoman has directed the photography for every Wes Anderson film.
As for the acting and the plot, Owen Wilson is not convincingly oppressive, and the other two are so withdrawn and aloof that it’s hard to really care what makes them tick. They become a little funnier as you get to know them better, and the movie is only 90 minutes in total, so pretty soon it’s over and you’re shaking your head again and humming the soundtrack‘s closing song — “Les Champs-Élysées” by Joe Dassin.
I’ll give it an ambivalent three stars out of five at Netflix. Measured against other Wes Anderson movies, it’s not as good as Rushmore, but more like The Royal Tenenbaums and better than his loopy The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.