Wes Anderson doesn't make movies like anybody else, which is sometimes a good thing and sometimes not. His latest, "The Darjeeling Limited," combines what's best and worst about him.
It's about three American brothers – Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) – who have not had occasion to speak in the year following their father's funeral. Hoping to bond, they board a train in India and embark on what they hope will be a spiritual journey.
Cramped in the tight train compartment, the brothers cannot suppress their rivalries and resentments. Francis, the trio's ringleader, has arrived with his head bandaged because of a near-fatal motorcycle accident; Peter is about to become a father; Jack is rebounding from a bad relationship. (In the film’s prologue, which will only be shown at the New York Film Festival and on the DVD version, we observe him and his ex – played by Natalie Portman – reconnoiter in a Paris hotel room). [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph failed to note that this prologue was not included in the film's general theatrical release.]
Anderson, who co-wrote the film with Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, has a funny idea here: He wants to show us the folly of forcing a transcendent experience. The brothers are like superannuated hippies straining to sink into the mysteries of India. They barge into religious temples hoping to catch a whiff of exaltation; Peter buys a pet cobra; Jack, the least ga-ga of the group, finds momentary transcendence in a sexual escapade with a pretty Indian woman on the train.
Each brother in his own way is clueless, and for a while their bumbling has a goofy, postmodernist Three Stooges appeal. Anderson's off-kilter camerawork – his high angles and extreme close-ups anatomize the action almost to the point of abstraction – is matched by the dialogue, which is comically spare.
And yet, "The Darjeeling Limited" is a spiritual journey undertaken by three men who are essentially, though unintentionally, cartoons. The ravishing Indian landscapes, as well as the score, which at times utilizes music once composed by the great Satyajit Ray for his movies, prime us for an emotional experience that never happens. The journey, which includes a wonderful cameo in the foothills of the Himalayas with Anjelica Huston as the boy's mother, is a series of dead ends that are meant to be destinations. But too often they just seem like dead ends.
Anderson shows us the deep spirituality of India but the joke here is that the brothers, surrounded by all this harrowing allure, can't rise above their pettiness. Anderson can't quite rise above his own quirkiness. It's not that he can't respond to the beauty he places before us – he can – but his jokiness keeps undercutting his own best efforts. "The Darjeeling Limited" is a transitional film for him: He's outgrown a comic style that can no longer accommodate his deeper feelings. Grade: B
• Rated R for language.