Saturday, October 13, 2007

The life exotic

It's been over ten years since Wes Anderson rode onto the scene out of Austin with his first film, Bottle Rocket. He followed that up with the breakout success of Rushmore. Since then, he's directed two more features and possibly the greatest commercial since Ridley Scott's "1984" spot for Apple. Viewers seem to either be distinctly pro or anti-Wes (I'm farily pro), but he's one of the few American directors these days whose films' release are antcipated events in the same way that a Coppola or Scorsese was in the pre-conglomerate Hollywood of the '70s.

Being the oldest of three brothers scattered between here, the East Coast, and London, I had an additional interest in catching Anderson's latest film, The Darjeeling Limited. Where "Life Aquatic" and "Royal Tennenbaums" were ensemble pieces, here the story is more intimate, focusing on the journey of three brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman) across India one year after the death of their father. Arranged by the domineering, eldest brother (Wilson), the ostensible purpose of the trip is to visit the country's most spiritual sites and reach newfound levels of personal insight. This being a Wes Anderson film, however, the brothers quickly revert to their natural state, which is to say self-medicated, suspicious, and at each others' throats.

The plot never reaches much further than exploring the brothers' coming to terms with the baggage with which their father's death left them (literally and figuratively). But the script is chock full of Wes's dry, wry humor and change does come to the them along the way -- though not perhaps when or how they expected to find it. Keeping the story small, even set against the backdrop of the subcontinent, I thought worked particularly well. A picaresque to the base of the Himalayas isn't the most overly commercial premise, but I think it's possibly Anderson's most accessible film since "Rushmore." It may not win any new converts but for people who thought "Life Aquatic" went overboard (so to speak) with the quirk, it should be more of a return to form.

Visually, the screen bursts with the vibrant oranges, blues, and yellows of India's crammed cities and desert countryside. The direction also showcases Anderson's unique camera work: long dolly shots move in and out through the train's hallway and compartments as if looking in on a cutaway model; smash zooms and extended slow-mos show off his New Wave cred. It's enjoyable to see the results of a director at work who revels in the art of every shot and elevates them beyond mere functionality.

P.S. "Hotel Chevalier," a 13-minute short dealing with Schwartzman's character's time in Paris before the events in "Darjeeling" is available as a free download on iTunes. It co-stars Natalie Portman and, though not essential to understanding the feature, it does enrich the viewing experience by showing the backstory to several events in the film.