“Look at these assholes,” a dissolute industrialist murmurs about some village children crossing a raging river in India. He’s about to jump outside of his own life, while The Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson’s latest daft intimate odyssey, is about to tear its own heart out.
The assholes of the movie, sort of, are the three Whitman brothers—CEO Francis, Peter, and writer Jack (Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody, and Jason Schwartzman)—who haven’t spoken in the year since their father’s funeral. These block(ed)heads spend most of the movie (the second part anyway) squirming in ever-mouldier familial compartments. Commencing a self-declared “spiritual journey” with a round robin of over-the-counter downers, each makes a stab at getting out of his own mind. The dissociation gives Anderson a chance to take a gamble and poke holes into his dandified (or flinty, as many said of 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) style.
The Darjeeling Limited is the sum of its saddened splits, be they familial, romantic, filmic. If the gods of commerce don’t force a change, the movie will stay broken up into two parts, the first a 13-minute prologue in France (set to play on the Internet and at film festivals exclusively, starting in Venice) and the rest comprising the Indian leg of the trip. Both parts are lovingly sparse about exposition.
On the raw side of the cleft, the short movement serves up a bad reunion with a sort-of-ex-lover (Natalie Portman), tracing the fetishes of one brother (Schwartzman) in his hotel cell hell and keeping a viewer on their toes, wondering, what if anything will travel with this young recluse to Darjeeling and beyond. The goldenrod robe? The tiny music boxes across the room from the old iPod? The wounded lover’s cruelty (“If we fuck, I’m going to feel like shit tomorrow.” Response: “That’s okay with me.”)? Or, worse still, that awful jingle-jangle litany that he won’t stop playing? As sour lines and regretful spit are swapped, Anderson leaves just enough out of the scene to keep it weary, dirty and a little shocking. Bad sex gets stanched by a line as twisted as a lost Pulp lyric: “Wanna see my view of Paris?”
On the feature side of the split is a fairly original emotional conception, buoyed by dusty music. (The Darjeeling Limited starts with a blast of archival tabla-sitar—mood-whirring stuff from filmmakers who have really nothing more to do with Anderson’s tactics— Satayjit Ray and James Ivory—and yielding to The Kinks, a sensitive band borne in deranged, sometimes shrill, brotherly hate-love. Let someone else finish that term paper on musical tropes in Anderson’s movies.) Anderson and crew have ever so slightly reprised Bottle Rocket’s (1996) elliptical roving tendency and subsumed anguish, though not its hilarity. The Darjeeling Limited’s decidedly slight, darker plot wriggles out attempts to describe it, but here’s how it starts (note: there are spoilers ahead): Corralled into an overstuffed itinerary by eldest accident-battered Francis—who has bought and heavily itinerized a spiritual “experience” in India starting with the titular train ride—Peter and Jack take turns keeping secrets from him and each other. Along the way, they dredge up some of the discomforts of their upbringing, in this case a distant mother and (possibly) adventurer father. The father remains unseen even in a photograph, represented solely by his accessories that Peter has compulsively taken to using. Flashbacks using goofy child stand-ins for the brothers are unnecessary—their group regression immediately blossoms as they default to the dozens of little ways of flickingly torturing each other within the family hierarchy. Meanwhile, mom (Anjelica Huston, naturally) has become a nun near Tibet and rejects Francis’s secret plan to drop by. The journey seems predicated on asking her one question, which I can’t reveal here.
Still reeling from the (barely mentioned) scars of their upbringing and a near-fatal crash, the eldest imagines that the other two need an injection of wonder, awe and ooga-booga. Having a lost or absent parent (the motif of the last four Anderson movies) translates into Darjeeling’s search for God. Francis even tries to make the busywork of his personal assistant seem spooky, minutes before the gofer drops a custom-printed, laminated itinerary off: “Where doesn’t actually matter. He’s on a different compartment on another part of the train. But we never see him. Ever.” In the loudest symbol crash of the movie, each brother totes a few pieces of the ten or eleven monogrammed pieces of their late father’s playfully swank luggage set.
Darjeeling is foremost a male weepie (as one farseeing commentator wrote of 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums), chronicling an aching love lost and won between three men. As a wigged-out affecting text built boldly on uncertainty, it takes cues from other odd melodramas: Renoir’s The River (1951) (accidental epiphanies in a ribbony freefloat); Cassavetes’s Husbands (1970) (the grief of three professional men gangways into a surreal Olympian bender, pushing women away and around); and Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy (1954) (ugly, petty tourists stumbling onto a vision about themselves via some earthy, “spicy” place). Par for the melodrama, Anderson’s characters are decked out in giveaway facial props, the best of which are Wilson’s bandages and padding, a lady porter’s fabulously glittering tears, and Schwartzman’s dirty, tender Lee Hazlewood ‘stache. Despite Francis, Peter, and Jack making slapstick with the aforementioned opiates, a poisonous snake and bootleg pepper spray, Anderson ensures that even this schwag has fancy reverberations.
All in all, the movie presents a pretty strange cobbling, full of cracked ideas: failing at mourning, planning to have a plan, waiting to experience an experience. At one point, Huston—eyelinered, fetchingly shorn, and the only real adult in the movie—nails the impossibility of their journey, which when it’s all said and done is a stab at talking to the past. “You talking to me?” she says, tougher than Travis Bickle. No, they’re talking to the ex-her—they might as well try ringing up their late father. Clapping his head between grandiosity and intimacy, Anderson’s design is less neatnik than usual and more frank about chaos, scars, scabs, and well-licked wounds just underneath the characters’ armour (suits by Armani, seemingly). He treats the sounds and sights of India as found objects, an instance of rapturous design that he doesn’t need to finesse, into which he shoehorns his three oddballs. Viewers expecting the usual muted, shambolic, scattershot laughs should bring well-worn hankies, for reasons that have everything to do with a shattering graphic cut jolting the brothers back from one funeral into another. Snakes and funerals, comedy and tragedy—The Darjeeling Limited and its mingled emotions takes them to the limit.