“King Of California” & “The Darjeeling Limited”
In both films, the primary characters are on a quixotic quest. Both happily showcase the oddball, the eccentric, even the absurdist, and both, in the end are about the importance of family relationships. Even when they are a pain. Because, to paraphrase the pundit, home is the place where when you go there, they have to put up with you.
In “King Of California,” Michael Douglas is so far gone that he’s in a mental institution. He’s been there for a couple of years now, but of course he’d been a goofball long before that. Enough so that his wife left him, with their young daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). Now she’s sixteen, and has been fending for herself, dropping out of school and working at McDonald’s and happily falling in the cracks of the system---her uncle thinking she was in foster care, her foster parents thinking she was with her uncle, and Child Protective Services too preoccupied to check up on her. She’s bought a beat-up car and is getting by on her own, in the old ramshackle family place that her Dad had refused to sell, even with that new housing development springing up all around them. When Dad finally comes home, he tries hooking up with an old friend from the jazz band, but then solemnly declares that he’s not interested in music any more. What he’s now obsessed with is the idea that he has stumbled upon the location of a long-lost Spanish treasure, hidden right in their vicinity, as attested by the obscure diary of a missionary priest from the 16th century, the only reading material available in the Looney bin. What follows is a bizarre kind of make-up bonding session, as the treasure hunt morphs from silly to serious to comical to desperate. Who’d have thought it would be hidden underneath the gardening supplies at the local Costco? Of course, the real treasure they discover is their loyalty to one another, but even that must be sacrificed on the altar of familial love. An offbeat, understated film with a happy undercurrent.
In “The Darjeeling Limited,” there’s already been much blood shed on the altar of familial love. Owen Wilson, the oldest brother, arrives banged-up from a motorcycle accident, which we later learn was a pathetic suicide attempt (Isn't that ironic?), but that doesn’t stop him from still issuing instructions to his younger siblings; even ordering for them at restaurants. The other two, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman, arrive with their own psychic wounds. It’s been a year since their father’s funeral now, and they haven’t seen each other since. Adrien’s still wearing his father’s prescription sunglasses, and shaving with his razor. Jason has broken up with his girlfriend, but can’t stop thinking about her and calling her. It’s as if they quit functioning, emotionally, and they’re all still made at their mother (Anjelica Huston) who’s an off to a convent in India and couldn’t even be bothered to attend the funeral. The three brothers try desperately for a spiritual pilgrimage, even stopping at local shrines, but it’s like they are trying to learn dance steps without hearing the music. Jason enters into a quick liaison with a native, Owen runs afoul of the conductor, and they all get kicked off the train in the middle of nowhere, where they find themselves suddenly witnessing a group of boys whose raft just overturned in the swift river. They instinctively jump in to try to rescue the struggling boys, and they manage to save two, but the third one dies. They carry him woefully back to the nearby village, but something significant happens to them there: they find out that it may not be about themselves, after all. They may really discover who they are the moment they quit thinking about themselves. They agree that their relationship to one another is too important not to maintain. But as significant as family is, there are certain things family can’t provide. And some things they just can’t help you with.
Both films are small-scoped, in that it’s not about the great sweep of history, or a mighty battle where the fate of civilizations hang in the balance, or saving the world from the dastardly villains. It’s more about ordinary, messed-up people just trying to find their way, in a world that’s more than bewildering, sometimes overwhelming, and often times all you can is stumble along the best way you can, and it’s pretty rare to even have a good itinerary, much less a treasure map. But there are always mistakes worth making out there.
Questions For Discussion:
1) Have you ever tried a “bonding trip” with adult siblings? Would you do it again?
2) Have you ever wondered if a relative of yours was really crazy? Does the functional definition of “sanity” differ from one person to the next?
3) How important is participation in family funerals?
4) How you ever attempted a religious pilgrimage? Would you recommend it to others?
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Terrell, Texas