For years, director Wes Anderson has had his finger on the pulse of severely dysfunctional families. His latest film, The Darjeeling Limited, is no exception. The film tells the story of Francis, Peter and Jack Whitman, three brothers who haven't seen each other since their father's funeral a year ago. Francis (Owen Wilson), the compulsive planner of the group, convinces the other two to join him on a train trip across India, on a half-baked spiritual quest "to become brothers again, like we used to be."
It's a convenient excuse for Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) to escape their own frustrating lives: Peter is feeling increasingly estranged from his pregnant wife, while Jack has just broken up with a girlfriend. (For the record, there are several small nods to Hotel Chevalier, the short focusing on Schwartzman's character, but seeing the short isn't crucial to understanding the movie.) For his part, Francis has just crashed his motorcycle into a hillside, leaving him with a bruised, bandaged face (and viewers with an uncanny reminder of Wilson's own troubles).
The first half of Darjeeling is typical Wes Anderson fare: character quirks galore, amusing yet nonsensical plot points, gorgeous colors and camera work, and witty — if emotionally stunted — dialogue. The characters are kept at somewhat of a remove, more pill-popping, cough syrup-swilling collections of neuroses than actual, relatable human beings. The bickering over belts and poisonous snakes that takes up the first half of the film is amusing, if somewhat insubstanitial. But the movie quickly takes a somber turn, so
Something happens about halfway through — something big and tragic — and it changes the course of the brothers' trip. It's a shocking event, especially since we've been zooming along in this perfected, stylized, Wes Anderson world for so long. The weight of the event falls on Brody's shoulders, and that was a wise choice — both Schwartzman and Wilson do fine work, but Brody has a leg up on them acting-wise, and his reactions seem more rooted and real. The movie uses that moment as a catalyst to flash back to the death of the brothers' father; only in the aftermath of another tragedy can the Whitmans start figuring out what's kept them apart for so long.
I tend to like Anderson's work, even when it's overly precious; it's worth noting that his detractors will probably find more problems with the movie than I did. But I do have a couple of quibbles, both of which were big enough to hurt my overall impression of the movie. For one, there's an absolutely perfect ending that comes about 20 minutes before the real one; the ultimate conclusion is satisfying, but the material in between didn't feel as vital to the movie as it should have been. The much more egregious issue comes when that gorgeous Louis Vuitton luggage gets enlisted into one of the least-subtle "shedding baggage" metaphors I've ever seen. Anderson usually conveys so much with so little; I expected more subtlety from him. But while it's uneven, Darjeeling is still an oddly affecting movie, worthy of its spot in Anderson's canon.
Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight