“The Darjeeling Limited,” the latest self-satisfied exercise in style over substance from writer-director Wes Anderson, will amuse his cult followers — as well as Anderson himself and his pals, of course — but probably nobody else.
This time he has amassed old friends Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman, along with Adrien Brody, to play estranged brothers who bicker while barreling across India on a train, supposedly on a spiritual journey. They haven’t spoken since their father’s funeral a year ago and their mother (Anderson regular Anjelica Huston) has abandoned them to become a nun in the Himalayas.
But the brothers Whitman, like the film itself, end up running all over the place without ever going anywhere. As in “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” Anderson seems more concerned with precious minutiae — the quirky, kitschy clutter surrounding his eccentric characters, all of which he shoots head-on in wide angle — than with developing people and scenarios that feel even vaguely real. (Anderson wrote the script with Schwartzman and Roman Coppola.)
The bittersweet heart of 1998’s “Rushmore” has long since left Anderson’s movies and all that’s left is a heart-shaped box, one that’s obsessively detailed and exquisitely ornate — not unlike the one-of-a-kind luggage set the brothers schlep around, which Marc Jacobs designed for Louis Vuitton especially for the film.
The suitcases literally and figuratively function as baggage for the Whitman brothers — and how cute is that? — pieces they inherited from their father which have become emblematic of their years of pent-up resentments. Now as grown men, the three can agree on the need for cigarettes and cheap, over-the-counter Indian painkillers and that’s about it.
Francis (Wilson), the eldest, has organized this trip and meticulously planned every minute of it to include time for both bonding and sightseeing. To make sure they keep to the schedule, he’s brought along his personal assistant, who prints out and laminates each day’s agendas (because he’s traveling with a printer and laminating machine, naturally), all of which seems like a tactic to avoid dealing with the motorcycle crash that’s left him injured and may not have been an accident after all.
Peter (Brody), in classic middle-child style, seeks to draw attention to himself by wearing his deceased father’s sunglasses and insisting he was always the favorite son. In mere weeks, he’s also about to become a father for the first time himself with the wife he’s pretty sure he’ll end up divorcing someday anyway — a woman whom he inexplicably didn’t bother to inform he was going on vacation to India. (It’s these kinds of details, which feel so false, that make it hard to become truly immersed in Anderson’s films.)
Finally there’s Jack (Schwartzman), the youngest, a writer who’s still so obsessed with his ex-girlfriend, he secretly checks the messages on her answering machine from wherever the brothers happen to stop along their journey. Jack can afford expensive, tailored suits but he wears no shoes. He’s also selective in the songs he plays from his iPod to accentuate particular moments, yet he has an impulsive bathroom romp with a sultry train attendant (Amara Karan) before he even knows her name.
But all that stuff, however distracting and obvious it is as a device, clearly required a ton of work, for which production designer Mark Friedberg deserves praise. (Longtime Anderson collaborator Robert Yeoman returns as cinematographer.) And every once in a while “The Darjeeling Limited” does have some lovely moments of subtlety: Peter running to catch the train in slow motion (always a favorite Anderson trick), or the brothers sitting around a campfire in the desert with Debussy’s “Clair de lune” playing in the background, wondering whether they’d have been friends if they weren’t related.
More intriguing than anything we see in “Darjeeling,” though, is the short film that precedes it, starring Schwartzman and Natalie Portman, which takes place in a Paris hotel room and includes some details that become factors later. The two play former lovers reuniting awkwardly for the first time. Of course it contains all of Anderson’s self-conscious visual flourishes but there’s also a delicacy and intimacy about it, and a pathetic sweetness in Schwartzman’s forced bravado, that make it instantly accessible and recognizable.
But you won’t see “Hotel Chevalier,” as it’s called, in theaters. It’s only playing before “Darjeeling” at film festivals and on DVD — Anderson wants you to seek it out for yourself on the Internet beforehand. And that’s not nearly as clever as he thinks it is, either.