It’s a coincidence that The Darjeeling Limited opened in Vermont the same day as Sean Penn’s movie Into the Wild — but a fortuitous one. Both films are about lads from well-heeled but emotionally barren families who travel far from home in search of meaning. One is a tragedy — if you’ve read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, you know why — and the other’s sort of a comedy. Writer-director Wes Anderson knows how to mock the foibles of coddled people seeking “real” experiences. When Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson), one of the three brothers at the center of Darjeeling, is kicked off an Indian train for various forms of misbehavior — including bringing a poisonous snake on board — he complains, “We’re just trying to experience something!”
Poor guy. It’s hard not to feel more sympathy for the put-upon Sikh steward who has to deal with the Whitman brothers as they take their spiritual journey on the rails. Gleefully boorish Francis, who organized the trip, bullies his younger siblings, even telling them what to order for dinner. Wan Peter (Adrien Brody) has left his very pregnant wife back home and hoards mementos of his dead father. Twitchy, insecure Jack (Jason Schwartzman) can’t forget his doomed relationship with Natalie Portman. (We get to witness part of it in “The Hotel Chevalier,” a 14-minute prologue to the film that Anderson originally distributed separately, on the Net.) All three brothers have a penchant for guzzling extra-strong Indian pain relievers. But the script (by Anderson, Schwartzman, and the latter’s cousin Roman Coppola) suggests they haven’t touched the source of their real pain: their dad’s untimely death, and the withdrawal of their chilly, imperious mother.
She’s played by Anjelica Huston, who’s been embodying scary, sexy mom-figures since The Grifters (1990) and did so in the two preceding Anderson movies, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Like Woody Allen, Anderson has his fave actors. He also has a style that’s unmistakable and stamped on every element of the film, from the ’60s rock playing over slo-mo action scenes to the custom luggage toted by the Whitmans, which was created by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton. As for his version of India, it’s easy to mistake it for the sumptuous background of a fashion spread. Anderson uses the place as a cornucopia of color: The vivid hues of the saris, the temples and even the peasants’ huts stand in for the passion that’s clearly missing from the American characters’ lives.
All of this sounds like a pretty superficial approach to one of the most complex, vibrant parts of the developing world. And it is — but at least Anderson seems to know it. In one scene, while Wilson, playing the typical American “spiritual tourist,” rhapsodizes, “The people are beautiful!” one of his brothers notices a group of Indian men jeering at the foreigners. Another sequence involving a funeral does a fine job of demonstrating that grief is universal, regardless of how different cultures express it (or don’t).
Bottom line: Anderson post-Rushmore is one of those directors people either adore or try to ignore. Anyone who’s still on the fence should know that this movie is shorter and tighter than the flabby, high-concept The Life Aquatic. Its acting is uniformly fine, and its dialogue is amusing: Anderson and his collaborators have an ear for the sloppy, self-serving ways people talk. (Asked if their mom really wants a surprise visit from the brothers, Wilson replies with a cockily delivered non-sequitur: “Well, she probably doesn’t. But maybe she does!”)
Still, some viewers may wish Anderson would take his talent and apply it to a different subset of people, for once. How many times can we watch über-refined urbanites strive to care about something, before we stop caring?