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Suicide survivor on a mystery train

Art and life are oddly coupled as Owen Wilson plays a passenger just back from the dead

BRIAN D. JOHNSON October 8 2007
THE BACK PAGES

Suicide survivor on a mystery train

Art and life are oddly coupled as Owen Wilson plays a passenger just back from the dead

BRIAN D. JOHNSON October 8 2007

Suicide survivor on a mystery train

Art and life are oddly coupled as Owen Wilson plays a passenger just back from the dead

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

film

In the endless soap opera of celebrity misadventure—from Mel’s drunken bigotry to Lindsay’s DUI escapades—nothing seems suprising anymore. But last month’s news that Owen Wilson had attempted suicide came as a genuine shock. We like to think we know actors from seeing them in movies, especially those who appear to be playing themselves. With his mop of surfer hair, the broken nose worn like a badge of slacker mischief, and the sheepish grin of an overgrown adolescent pulling off a panty raid in broad daylight, Wilson has always come across as Hollywood’s good-natured bad boy. Among his Frat Pack brethren—the likes of Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell—he appeared the most carefree: a lovable wit with a sunny disposition.

After reports that he tried to kill himself by slitting his left wrist and swallowing pills, there was a flurry of allegations about hard drugs, and apot-scolding-the-kettle cry from Courtney Love, who blamed British actor Steve Coogan for being a bad influence. Yet on the whole, the media has respected Wilson’s request to “heal in private.” The suicide attempt seemed so out of character to begin with, as if he had been woefully miscast.

But now he shows up onscreen in The Darjeeling Limited, and spends the entire movie with his head severely lacerated and swathed in bandages—as a character recovering from a suicide attempt. “I smashed into a hill on purpose on my motorcycle,” he says, offering no further explanation. “My brain stopped. My heart stopped. So technically I was dead.” This bittersweet comedy is perplexing enough as it is. But in light of events, those lines and the image of Wilson’s bandaged head acquire an eerie, unintended gravitas.

The Darjeeling Limited—which hits theatres Oct. 5 after opening the New York Film Festival this week—is another off-kilter confection from U.S. director Wes Anderson, who gave us Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic. Wilson plays Francis, the eldest of three American brothers, who summons his estranged siblings (Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brody) for a “spiritual journey” by train through northern India after their father’s death.

The film was shot on location, and on a real train, largely in the desert region of Rajasthan. But for the most part, India rolls by like an exotic diorama, while this trio of accidental tourists, hauling a mountain of designer luggage, travel in a cocoon as self-contained as that indoor pup tent in Tenenbaums.

Zoned out on painkillers and Indian cough syrup, they’re all brooding over something. While seducing a train stewardess, Schwartzman’s character pines for a girl he left in Paris. Brody’s wonders why he’s fathering a child with a woman he plans to divorce. As if refusing to admit they’re in a comedy, everyone plays it dead straight—especially Wilson, who acts like a man who’s just seen his own ghost. Veering off the rails, the brothers have the requisite Indian encounter with random mortality, with a taste of transcendence in a village funeral. And there’s a deadpan epiphany

waiting at the end of the line, as they track down their mother, who’s become a nunplayed by Anjelica Huston in so much eyeliner she looks like a trucker in drag.

With a soundtrack that shimmies between Satyajit Ray film scores and vintage Rolling Stones, Darjeeling is as ornate and stylized as India itself. The beauty of Anderson’s films is their dollhouse whimsy—they inhabit their own artifical universe. But as these three long-faced amigos indulge in Darjeeling’s luxurious conceit, behind the mummy-like turban of bandages lies the jarring enigma of Owen Wilson. You can’t help thinking that his face looks too thin. Maybe it’s just the makeup, but it’s hard to recognize the happy goof who played dumb so smartly in Zoolander, or the charming rogue who was the perfect mate for Rachel McAdams in the Wedding Crashers. And as India flashes by the window, the mind wanders... poor Owen, was it the drugs, the breakup with Kate Hudson, or both?

Movie stars can eclipse their characters all too easily. But Wilson never set out to be a star, or even an actor. His passion was writing, and he co-wrote Anderson’s first three features. He didn’t co-write Darjeeling: Anderson scripted it with Schwartzman and Roman Coppola while they embarked on their own excursion to India. But you have to wonder if Wilson—himself one of three brothers—was not their absent muse, a damaged guru along for the ride whether he liked it or not. M