The ingredients that have increasingly defined Wes Anderson’s films—quick sideways pans, environments meticulously adorned with all manner of lovely and/or kitschy bric-a-brac, and symmetrical widescreen compositions—seem, with The Darjeeling Limited, to have become something like limitations. Anderson’s fifth feature is, to be sure, an even looser creation than 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, detailing with relaxed sinuousness the train ride-cum-spiritual journey through India by three estranged brothers (Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrien Brody). More on-location scenes and fewer background minutiae, however, do not a great departure make, and it’s dispiriting to discover a dull familiarity to the director’s latest, which once again involves a trio of unhappy, at-odds siblings wracked by mommy and daddy issues, a thematic concern here worked out in such perilously thin ways that it feels less the product of an auteurish fixation than a fear of experimentation. Safe is the best way to describe Darjeeling, though a touch of laziness can also be discerned, especially by the umpteenth slow-mo shot of the men set to a from-the-vault pop song.
Reunited at the behest of eldest Francis (Wilson), who wishes to foster renewed closeness between the brothers, the three embark on a trip that will eventually lead them to their runaway mother (Anjelica Huston), who’s holed herself up in a remote convent. A straight path, though, is not in the cards, and the roundabout quality to their expedition is the film’s most charming attribute. The brothers’ penchant for pairing off to tell secrets, pulling away from each other and then reuniting, gives Darjeeling an elasticity that meshes with the Buddhist-tinged sense of circularity that infects everything from the narrative’s structure to the color-coding of various items and locales. Too bad that shoulder-to-shoulder close-ups of the characters, as idiosyncratically vibrant as they are, can’t compensate for the fact that the protagonists have been painted with a cursory brush. Lacking the depth of their Royal Tenenbaums predecessors (much less Rushmore’s Max Fischer), they’re little more than their solitary descriptive trait: Jack (Schwartzman) is obsessed with checking his ex’s answering machine; Peter (Adrien Brody) is consumed with hoarding his dead father’s effects; and Francis wears head bandages, which are too-cute symbolic representations of personal and inter-sibling pain (not to mention uncomfy reminders of the actor’s real-life troubles).
The brothers’ discord is mirrored by their larger disconnection from India itself. However, while Francis’s fixation on religious/cultural rituals is a sincere, fumbling attempt to achieve harmony, the reliance of the script (by Anderson, Schwartzman, and Roman Coppola) on somber tragedy as a vehicle for personal growth flounders, in part because the characters always seem mere featherweight concepts. Anderson’s reverence for his foreign setting is undeniable, the director going so far as to score the proceedings with songs from Satyajit Ray and Merchant Ivory films. And yet the way he depicts people—like quirky dress-up dolls to be posed on elaborate stages—gives his portraits a customary “aren’t they adorably weird” vibe that’s becoming more irksome than endearing. Ultimately, Darjeeling isn’t so much a failure as it is an example of stagnation, of Anderson wrongly assuming that a different country and slightly more ramshackle atmosphere would overshadow his story’s and style’s escalating redundancy. Seeing Bill Murray is always nice, the fanciful Godardian pan through the train is enchanting, and the short prologue Hotel Chevalier that will not accompany the film in theaters but will appear on the DVD (featuring Natalie Portman doing her best Jean Seberg) is amusing, but Anderson needs to do like the film’s brothers do during the (embarrassingly literal) climax and, once and for all, ditch some of his old baggage.