Wes Anderson visits familiar territory with a familiar cast in The Darjeeling Limited
OK, so there are these three guys (they’re brothers, as it turns out) and they go on this sort of spiritual journey to India. All three seem kinda wacky, but it also turns out their transcontinental trek (mostly by train) and its tragicomic mishaps come about as part of an off-the-wall attempt to repair their fraternal relationships, and their lives, in the much-scattered aftermath of their father’s funeral.
Eventually, we also learn that the trip has them headed for a rather unlikely sounding reunion with their long-estranged mother, who is now a nun and missionary in a remote part of India. By the time they land on her farflung doorstep, they have also encountered a number of detours and distractions—a deadly accident at a river crossing, an Indian funeral, etc.
In summary, it all sounds a little like a New Age variation on the picaresque novels of yore; but however charmingly the film mimics that classic model, it never really achieves the fullness or the narrative momentum that the form seems to promise. Yet the charm is there, albeit somewhat erratically, and the spiritual gravity of the subject matter commands a certain respect even as it gets deflected through narrative whimsy and perplexingly deadpan antics.
It may or may not help to know that Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman play the brothers, and that all this is the work of Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou). A sort of space-cadet mysticism is a hallmark of Anderson’s films (most of which have been done at least partly in collaboration with Wilson, who also gets some co-writing credits), and Brody (making his first appearance in an Anderson film) and Schwartzman (featured in Rushmore) add readily to the basic Anderson/Wilson ambience, which is paradoxically both vague and direct.
There are no grand payoffs on The Darjeeling Limited‘s most resounding themes, but I’m not ready to dismiss the film’s casually comic spirituality as patently bogus. Phoniness and self-deception are surely part of the comic point here, and the reverberations from the accidental death in the river-crossing episode suggest at least the potential for something genuine.
On this one, reviewers’ reactions, even among Anderson enthusiasts, have varied wildly on both the performances and the story, and there is indeed a sense in which a lot of it seems to wander back and forth between revelatory vision and obscure in-joke.
And this wacky, unstable combination of oddball portentousness and zoned-out anti-climax is signaled in advance by Hotel Chevalier, a 13-minute Anderson short, which is being shown as an oblique “prologue” to Darjeeling, and which has Schwartzman and Natalie Portman (both in character for Darjeeling) playing out an unscheduled love tryst from which the former will flee in order to meet his brothers in India. Portman’s performance alone makes the short worth seeing, and Schwartzman’s sardonic lines will reverberate in the longer film as well.