It's hard to approach a new film by Wes Anderson without feeling like you've walked into an argument. There's something about his dollhouse aesthetic, his storybook formality, his miniaturist's attention to detail and his dogged belief in the power of objects to elicit the most oblique and recondite emotions that seriously sets people off. Why is a question for another paragraph, but needless to say it's exactly this staunch commitment to artificiality that makes his work what it is.
Like all of Anderson's movies, "The Darjeeling Limited" takes place primarily in a single, evocative location. In this case, it's a train, although it's not so much an actual train as it is a romantic amalgam of the Orient Express and just about every other fragment of cultural nostalgia Anderson can access. Shot beautifully in India by cinematographer Robert Yeoman, "The Darjeeling Limited" was also writtenin country by Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, who collaborated on the screenplay as they traveled together.
But to say it's actually set there is a stretch. The India of the movie is more an idea than a reality, a whimsical Western projection that combines elements from 1930s picture books, films by Jean Renoir and Satyajit Ray, the Beatles' immersion in Eastern religion in the '60s, and centuries of Orientalism. Exotic, spiritual and, according to Peter Whitman (Adrien Brody), "spicy"-smelling, it's a magical mystery place where wayward foreigners can go to get their souls back on track.
Or so Francis (Owen Wilson) thinks. After the death of his father, the eldest son of the far-flung Whitman clan hustles his estranged younger brothers, Peter (Brody) and Jack (Schwartzman), aboard the Darjeeling Limited, hoping to embark on a spiritual journey across the Rajasthani desert. Francis has painstakingly mapped out the trip with the help of his assistant Brendan (Wally Wolodarsky), who has come along, lugging a printer, a laminator and a beleaguered attitude.
Francis is determined to accomplish three things on the voyage: bring his family closer, reunite with their mother (who is living in India, having become a nun) and discover the meaning or purpose of his life. Naturally, the minute they step aboard the train, long-term goals are waylaid by the usual short-term distractions and gratifications. Within what seems like moments, they're drinking, smoking, popping pills and chugging pain medication. Jack pursues Rita (Amara Karan), the pretty train stewardess, and Francis obsesses over his possessions and the fact that Peter has helped himself to their dead father's sunglasses.
Wilson, Brody and Schwartzman are like a contemporary, depressive version of the Three Stooges, and there's something inspired about Anderson's decision to cast them as brothers. They are linked not only by their prodigious noses, but also by their air of melancholy. And yet, what do they have to be sad about? Like many of Anderson's characters, the Whitmans are privileged, but this time the wealth becomes another source of absurdist humor. Francis wears a $6,000 belt and $3,000 loafers. Jack chooses a five-star Parisian hotel for his can't-get-out-of-bed nervous breakdown. They are, by any measure, ridiculous, and yet you can't help but feel sorry for them, they're so trapped in their little self-absorbed, self-mythologizing bubbles. Even when tragedy strikes, joining their fates with the fates of three young Indian brothers, they remain strangely like spectators, experiencing it in a mediated prism that combines Renoir's film with the album cover of "Abbey Road."
There's something acquisitive, even a little selfish, about the Whitmans' quest for meaning and transcendence. At their father's funeral, Peter's wife assures the squabbling brothers that they are all experiencing an equal amount of grief. On hearing that her sons are in India, mother Patricia (Anjelica Huston) sends word that now's not a good time to receive them, why don't they come back in the spring? When they pop in at the convent unannounced anyway, she defies maternal expectations. Is Patricia's devotion to those less fortunate than her sons -- and everyone is less fortunate than her sons -- noble or self-aggrandizing? That's the thing about spiritual quests, it can be hard to tell.
Still, the brothers have been through a lot lately -- Jack has just ended a relationship (the coda to which can be seen in a 13-minute short, "Hotel Chevalier," starring Natalie Portman and available on iTunes), and he keeps calling his ex-girlfriend's machine to listen to her messages. Peter has disappeared on his wife, Alice, because she's about to give birth to their first child. Francis has recently suffered a motorcycle accident that may or may not have been a suicide attempt (eerily prefiguring Wilson's apparent suicide attempt in August). Their dad is dead and their mom seems to be running from them. They have baggage, which takes the form of 11 now quasi-infamous suitcases designed by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton. The brothers are also lost. The train takes a wrong turn in the middle of the night and ends up off course. Francis asks where they are, and Jack responds, "I don't know. They haven't located us yet." This blows Francis' mind. "Is that symbolic?" he shouts. "We. Haven't. Located. Us. Yet!"
This kind of over-the-top absurdist symbolism is why Anderson is often accused of being in love with himself, but you could say that it displays the opposite. The way he calls attention to the construction of the narrative is refreshingly frank; it's like he's tipping his hand, admitting that he's trying to work it all out too. Like all of Anderson's movies, "Darjeeling" is obsessed with families, stories, nostalgia and the search for meaning -- all man-made things. "I wonder if the three of us would've been friends in real life," Jack asks, "not as brothers, but as people." The answer is probably not. Jack, the writer of the family, composes short stories about his life and insists that they're fiction. In a way, that's what Anderson does too, though he does it more artfully than most. His narratives are shaggy and digressive, but they're always about the same thing: the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of things in what can feel like a weird trip to nowhere.
MPAA Rating: R for language. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes. In wide release.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times