Success and Failure: The Darjeeling Limited and Across the Universe

The Darjeeling Limited represents a small but forceful step forward in the evolution of Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic) as a filmmaker.  All the Anderson trademarks are still here: the obsession with family dysfunction, the stage-y tone, the exhaustively detailed production design, the awkward-yet-graceful camera movement.  But where his last films traded human emotion for storybook artifice, Darjeeling walks a delicate balance between the two that results in a fully-realized picture that exudes love both for its damaged characters and its exotic locale.

The film centers on the three Whitman brothers: Jack (Jason Schwartzman), a depressive writer with relationship issues, Peter (Adrien Brody), a husband on the verge of both fatherhood and divorce, and Francis (Owen Wilson), the oldest of the three, whose head is in bandages after a possibly suicidal motorcycle accident.  After a year of separation, the brothers have re-united aboard the Darjeeling Limited, a passenger train traversing the beautiful countryside of India.  The reunion is meant to be a bonding experience where the brothers can reconnect and properly grieve over the death of their father.  The journey itself becomes a comedic spiritual quest of sorts, where each brother attempts to find peace with himself and the others.


To further summarize the plot would be pointless; one of the many joys of this film is its meandering nature.  Not so much episodic as whimsical, Darjeeling takes its time, allowing the audience to get to know the brothers within the confines of the train before releasing them into the unfamiliar outside world.  Tonally, the film is nicely broken into two parts: the train is where much of the signature Anderson humor is at its best, but once the brothers exit the train into the real world, The Darjeeling Limited becomes more grounded and poignant than the best parts of The Royal Tenenbaums.   

Schwartzman, Brody and Wilson capture the sibling dynamic with striking accuracy, no doubt due in large part to Anderson’s writing method: he and his co-writers (Roman Coppola and Schwartzman himself), made a similar voyage across India while writing the script, and Anderson has stated that much of the movie comes from their actual experiences.  The result is one of the most enjoyable films of the year.  

On the other end…

Across the Universe is a clumsy mess of a musical that mines the Beatles catalogue for inspiration and instead finds a surefire way of exposing its own ineptitude.  Built entirely around inferior renditions and re-workings of the Fab Four’s most memorable tunes, Julie Taymor’s attempt to pay tribute to the lasting power of pop as a cultural mirror succeeds only in evoking a new appreciation and nostalgia for songs that have become so ingrained in the human consciousness that most of us now take them for granted. 

By watching 30+ songs butchered by tone-deaf actors as a painfully banal love story plays out for an excessive two and a half hours, we are reminded of why these songs matter to us in the first place; they are the soundtrack of a life, starting with wide-eyed innocence (“I wanna hold your hand”, “Help!”), through rebellious adolescence (“With a little Help from My friends”, “I am the Walrus”) and finally ending with weary resignation (“Because”, “Let it Be”).  This is a simplistic summation, to be sure, but the point is that the Beatles have achieved the impossible task of being everything to everyone in the purest way. They express universal hopes and fears through hooks and harmony; they are style and substance in perfect union.  They defined and defied pop culture, and music hasn’t been the same since.

Which is maybe why the innocuous Universe becomes so offensive. It co-opts something holy, then cheapens it by robbing it of its autonomy.  The songs are now slaves to the Hollywood machine, commodities that function to put asses in seats. That said, the filmmakers themselves seem to have good intentions, but paying tribute to the best of pop by creating the worst of it is no way to show respect.  The Beatles’ success at transcending the trappings of the very form they created is a feat accomplished by no one, save for God himself.  Across the Universe is the humble mortal, feebly and ineptly showing gratitude to its creator.  Sadly, imitation is not always the best form of flattery, and good intentions and disrespect are not mutually exclusive.