Three boys head off to see their mother, though only one of them knows where they're going, and why. "We're just trying to experience something," says the one played by Owen Wilson, his head bandaged owing to a recent motorcycle accident. They are privileged Anglos abroad, carrying an improbably fabulous collection of designer luggage with them aboard a train chugging across India. They have reunited, uneasily, a year after their father's death and their mother's disappearance.
Spiritual journeys, even if they're comedies, don't really lend themselves to the extreme, anal-retentive formalism found in every frame of "The Darjeeling Limited." Director Wes Anderson's latest is arch in the extreme, a work of exacting eccentricity. It is also Anderson's most interesting film after "Rushmore," which starred Jason Schwartzman. Schwartzman co-wrote "Darjeeling" with his cousin Roman Coppola and Anderson, and co-stars with Wilson and Adrien Brody.
Wilson's apparent recent suicide attempt has given the film a weird vibe of life-imitating-art, since Wilson, a longtime Anderson colleague, plays an amiable gadabout with reckless and self-annihilating tendencies, who wants desperately to get it together. The real-life Wilson headlines recede with each new week, happily, and Wilson reportedly is on his way to recovery. "Darjeeling" may be rolling diorama of oddities, but it's not exhausting in the way Anderson's "Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" was. However irregular the beat, this one has a heart.
It begins with Bill Murray dressed like a '50s salesman, dashing to catch a train, and his rush to the station is filmed with '60s-style zooms, adding a sense of jokey, artificial excitement. Who is this man? Clues are planted, but the story belongs to the three brothers. The eldest (Wilson) is a planner and a bit of a control freak. The middle child (Brody) has come to India at a time when his relationship with his pregnant wife feels especially fragile. The youngest (Schwartzman), the writer of the family, is dogged by the memory of his latest lover, last seen in Paris. That particular relationship is the subject of "Hotel Chevalier," a related (and very good) short film directed by Anderson.
Some drugs are ingested in "Darjeeling," mostly cough syrup and painkillers. One of the boys has a fling with a train attendant (Amara Karan). At the midpoint of the story, tragedy strikes and darkens the palette. Even so Anderson's cinematographer Robert Yeoman fills the screen with a mellow glow and splashes of color.
At key junctures Anderson takes the easy way out. Rather than resorting to elegantly wrought images of the characters gliding about in slow-motion backed by a groovy soundtrack--in this case music from Satyajit Ray's films among others, lush, flowing music full of feeling--you wouldn't mind a direct expression of an honest emotion. Not that Anderson is cold, but his characters tend to be artful dodgers, poseurs who let their guard down only occasionally.
Yet Anderson can be very funny when he sets his mind and his craft to it. There's a lovely slapstick sequence in "Darjeeling" involving pepper spray, sibling tensions bubbling over and Schwartzman dithering and then running smack into a window. It's as honest and fine (and atypically messy) a scene as Anderson has ever done. In a painstakingly designed fable of three brothers getting back to the womb, getting free of the family baggage and getting into they know not what, the spontaneity is most welcome.
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'Darjeeling' Journey Has Heart Enough for Outsiders
Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody and Owen Wilson in 'The Darjeeling Limited'