About a third of the way through The Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson’s latest pop-tune-inflected, visually overstuffed meditation on cocked-up filial longing, the giddiness of its exotic locale and the charm of its verbally sparring leading men wear off, and it becomes apparent that the movie isn’t so much boring as bored. Why should anyone watching it feel differently?
I suspect the culprit is a toxic combination of Anderson’s early success and too much studio money—a Hollywood cocktail that’s drained the creativity out of more than a few homegrown auteurs over the years. It doesn’t help that Anderson’s a relentless perfectionist, and that Darjeeling probes—with more than occasional tender/funny accuracy—the same fissures in American family life that earned Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums their cultish fanbase. Intriguing as this subject is, however, his dogged dedication to it is beginning to sink into fussy airlessness, and about all that seems new here is a larky, expensive-feeling setup in a disappointingly misapplied foreign milieu.
Rural India, to be precise, in which Darjeeling’s trio of protagonists, the brothers Whitman—Francis (Owen Wilson), Jack (Jason Schwartzman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anderson and Roman Coppola) and Peter (Adrien Brody)—have embarked on a “spiritual quest” not long after the accidental death of their father. Their vehicle of choice is the titular train, yet despite this lovingly detailed, signifier-laden movie-movie setting and its inevitable forward motion, there’s little in the way of narrative propulsion. The siblings’ interplay is what matters, as we learn through their various casually deceitful alliances that Peter is dispirited by his wife’s pregnancy, Jack is a needy womanizer (on this trip he pursues Rita, the Limited’s “stewardess” beguilingly played by Amara Karan), and Francis—fresh from an apparent motorcycle-crash suicide attempt—is a pushy control freak who plans to reunite them with their wayward mother (Anjelica Huston). Action-wise, there is a pivotal and moving sequence midfilm, when, after being kicked off the train, the Whitmans rescue a group of boys—save one—from drowning and attend a subsequent funeral. But its metaphorical significance is as transparent and self-serving as a flashback to Dad’s stateside funeral is distracting and vague.
There are other such logistical problems in the film, chief among them that Wilson, Schwartzman and Brody are never quite convincing as brothers. (Ironically, a more deeply felt, infinitely sillier invocation of brotherhood, 2005’s The Wendell Baker Story, was mounted by Wilson and his kin.) Still, Anderson deserves credit for pushing his boundaries, at least geographically speaking; Darjeeling’s off-the-beaten-path locations are never less than breathtaking, and cinematographic co-conspirator Robert Yeoman’s hyperkinetic camera recalls an era when movies adamantly moved above all else. But the film’s unflagging interiority barely makes room for India’s true complexity, and it instead flirts with the Whitman boys’ touristy, naively mystical perception of the subcontinent as a colorful stand-in for the emotional depth they lack. Beautiful as the countryside is, the cultural sightlines are thus all wrong, and the overall impression is bewilderingly indistinct and flat.
Clearly, more than a change of scenery is called for if Anderson is to do more than repeat himself from here on out. Taking on a for-hire project might work, but personally, I think he was onto something with 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a perceived misfire in which he was courageous enough to frame his customary existential dustup from the perspective of someone other than his own age. The good news is that Anderson is pushing 40, so there’s every chance that he’ll return to the potent middle-age concerns of Aquatic with a genuine sense of middle-age urgency. It’s a midlife crisis I have high hopes for, because, frankly, his whimsical adult-child angst-athons have run out of steam.
The Darjeeling Limited
Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Amara Karan, Anjelica Huston
Directed by Wes Anderson