By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 5, 2007
In his 10-year career, writer-director Wes Anderson has carved out a niche for himself as American cinema's most lyrically idiosyncratic poet of family dysfunction. Since his debut film, "Bottle Rocket," up through "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," he's plumbed the pains and pleasures of domestic life in crowded portraits of filial devotion and betrayal. Those themes are steeped in an intoxicating, if somewhat thin, brew of wit, pathos and visual exuberance in "The Darjeeling Limited," a picaresque comedy about three brothers searching for spiritual meaning in India.
By now, Anderson is an accomplished enough filmmaker to have his own backlash: When "Bottle Rocket" came out in 1996, he was hailed as a fresh voice, but in the decade since, some viewers have come to loathe his films for their preciousness, studied irony and overweening erudition. But there are those filmgoers who are all too happy to plunge into Anderson's esoteric world, populated by a motley crew of savants, stylistas and self-absorbed eccentrics.
This latter group will no doubt enjoy the ride on "The Darjeeling Limited," which stars Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody and Owen Wilson. They play Jack, Peter and Francis Whitman, respectively, who haven't seen one another since their father's funeral a year earlier. Francis, who, like most of Anderson's characters, is inexplicably prosperous, has organized the trip, a journey through India aboard a shabbily elegant train to visit the country's most sacred shrines and to re-bond with his brothers. It's against this extravagant backdrop of India's deeply saturated palette and densely woven textures as well as that gorgeous, hurtling train, that the Whitmans try to find themselves -- and each other -- in a series of alternately wry and wrenching encounters.
From lighthearted banter to all-out fisticuffs, "The Darjeeling Limited" presents a portrait of sibling rivalry and alliance that, for all the Whitmans' weirdness, feels authentic, in large part because Schwartzman and Brody are so immediately believable as brothers. But it's Wilson who steers "The Darjeeling Limited," and not only because his on-screen persona, a man who has recently survived a near-death experience, so eerily echoes his own off-screen life. He spends most of the movie hidden behind gauze and bandages; during a jarring scene, when he quietly admits he needs more time to heal, the poignancy is palpable.
The controlling Francis, who issues laminated itineraries every morning and constantly barks out directives, is the chief goad and emotional core of the group, whose mission in India changes when Francis belatedly reveals his heretofore hidden agenda. ("It was on the itinerary, but I put it under TBD," he deadpans.) When the trip veers off course, the flip, detached tone of "The Darjeeling Limited" takes a radical turn, and the explanation of Francis's behavior becomes touchingly clear. (Anderson co-wrote the script with Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, who are cousins.)
"Only connect," E.M. Forster urged. They're trying, these Whitman boys, and they finally do, in the most vagrant, random sense of the phrase. "The Darjeeling Limited" isn't deep; its fey humor and obvious metaphors will surely provide ample fodder for Anderson's detractors (and those on the fence). But it's sweet, and even if the filmmaker's idea of representing emotional baggage with custom Louis Vuitton suitcases is a bit on-the-nose, it still looks great, as does a production design that is drenched in bold tones of turquoise, red and saffron. With their foreheads anointed with crimson bindi dots, at one point bedecked in bright metallic turbans, the Whitman boys, and by extension the audience, traipse through crammed markets, a sprawling desert, a convent set atop a spectacular crag and, most important, the titular train, which along with the Vuitton ensemble becomes a vivid, beloved character in itself.
Full of the visual and musical detail for which Anderson is known (the chief pop leitmotif is Peter Sarstedt's "Where Do You Go To My Lovely?"), "The Darjeeling Limited" is a mere bagatelle, but one that has its charms, including but not limited to its dazzling setting, its quiet jokes, its carefully calibrated evocation of grief and its three lead actors. Even in the midst of Anderson's most self-conscious humor and confected scenarios, they evince with unforced ease the rueful, bruised beauty of true brotherhood.
The Darjeeling Limited (91 minutes at area theaters) is rated R for profanity.