Wes Anderson, the director of the delightful film The Royal Tennenbaums , is running out of time. He's beginning to frustrate us. Luckily, he seems to be just as frustrated with himself. With his new film, The Darjeeling Limited , he has made one too many films about privileged, dysfunctional families. He knows this, and keeps trying to break through to something new.
Before the film begins, you will see a short subject, by Anderson, called The Hotel Chevalier . A darkly handsome young man, played by Jason Schwartzman, is inert on a hotel bed in Paris. The camera prowls back and forth restlessly. We will learn that he has been in this purgatory for over a month; he can afford it indefinitely. He gets a call from a former lover who is in town for one night only. Can she come over? He has been running from her, but he cannot say no. He tidies the room, creating a little love nest as if by reflex rather than will.
When the girl arrives, she is played by Natalie Portman, looking like Mia Farrow circa Rosemary's Baby , in her dangerously trendy Vidal Sassoon coif. She flits about the room, sending signals so mixed, we in the audience are driven half mad, let alone the guy. Eventually, they prepare to make love; but there's too much pain in the bed, and the man is too emotionally exhausted for passion.
Strange way to start a movie. But the use of the short film creates an intimacy with the character, who we learn is named Jack. By spending a little time in Paris, the film, which always runs the risk of claustrophobia, has a chance to expand a little bit (later, there will be an equally short, equally effective sequence in New York City).
When the film proper begins, we see Jack again, still hiding out from life, this time on a long journey across India by train. He is here at the bequest of his oldest brother, Francis, Owen Wilson. Francis' head is bandaged following a motorcycle accident; but his eyes suggest his greatest wounds are internal. Also present, begrudgingly, is the angular and acerbic middle brother, Peter, Adrian Brody. One year after the death of their father, the three brothers have convened in India, following Francis's half-baked itinerary, which is supposed to lead them to spiritual enlightenment. Or something.
As we get to know the brothers - we're trapped on the train with them - we're meant to be laughing at the wacky games they play with loyalty, the way they fight with, triangulate, and manipulate each other. If I had never seen another Wes Anderson film, I might have been more patient with this passage; instead I found it repetitive and precious. "Would we have been friends, do you think, if we'd met in real life?" one of them asks. "Real life." What do they think they're in the middle of? They aren't even aware that a world outside the family even exists.
On film, spiritual quests played as farce are common, and they are almost always shapeless. The Darjeeling Limited is no exception. Though the screenplay is actually structurally complex, it feels like a string of arbitrary and forced variations. But then we reach the exact center of the film; and now, at last, real life comes crashing down on the brothers.
I won't spoil anything by revealing the form tragedy takes, but it does strike. Suddenly, India is not a series of postcards witnessed through the windows of a moving train; it is real . Anderson briefly shoots this departure with a hand-held camera hard to believe, considering the arch perfection of his usual style.
But as much as I was yearning for the style to explode, and the story to whiz off on a new trajectory, this turns out only to be an interlude. Anderson's style reasserts itself with his favorite punctuation: quick, precise 90 degree pans, chopping the space into Ozu-like squares. This was an inspired technique for an exquisite miniature like Tennenbaums ; but faced with the mountain of India, that style is like chipping at a mountain with a little rock hammer.
As these handsome, modish young men in tailored suits goofed around India, looking in vain for something already in their possession, I thought often of Richard Lester's Beatles films. Those are fine movies, but the Beatles, inspired by trips to India, took their work to much more interesting places. At the end of The Darjeeling Limited , in a painfully overblown metaphor, in slow motion, the brothers leave their expensive custom luggage behind in order to catch a departing train. I wondered: when they return to their lives, have they learned to live without the luggage, or will they replace it, just the newest Westerners who can't integrate India into their lives? And will The Darjeeling Limited turn out to be a transitional film for Anderson, a stepping stone to wider vistas of compassion? Time will tell.