Wes Anderson’s movies have always had the feel of private jokes among old friends, but they were once jokes that others of us could share with pleasure, too. His recent work, however, has become so intentionally arch and precious that it’s positively cultish; those involved in the pictures, both behind the camera and in front of it, seem to be winking smugly toward one another in what amounts to conspiratorial condescension toward us poor, benighted outsiders. “The Darjeeling Limited” joins “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” in being a movie that seems designed for a compound filled with true believers rather than ordinary folk like you and me. It looks wonderful—with lovely locations, cleverly wrought production design and art direction (by Mark Friedberg and Adam Stockhausen) and lush widescreen cinematography (by Robert Yeoman)—but feels thin and weightless, as pretty a bauble as a Christmas tree ornament and ultimately just about as durable.
Written by Anderson, Roman Coppola and co-star Jason Schwartzman, it’s a road movie of sorts, set largely on a train in India where three wealthy brothers have embarked on a sort of spiritual journey following the death of their father. The organizer—and general control-freak—is Francis (Owen Wilson), a guy who’s swathed in bandages as the result of what he claims was an accident but might have been a suicide attempt (a circumstance that may cause some queasiness as a result of the actor’s recent personal history); it’s his goal for the siblings to reconnect not only with each other but with their long-absent mother as well. (As it turns out, she’s now a Christian nun in a remote Indian convent where Francis, unbeknownst to his brothers, has planned a stop.) The other two are Peter (Adrien Brody), a businessman who’s uptight over his wife’s pregnancy, and Jack (Schwartzman), a droopy nerd who—presumably because he co-wrote the script—is presented as an irresistible ladies’ man (not only does the beautiful stewardess on the train, played by Amara Karan, immediately come on to him, but in the short prelude to the feature that was shown at festivals and is available online—and is if anything even worse than the movie—he’s the boyfriend of a sexy young thing played by Natalie Portman, who visits him in a plush Paris hotel suite and offers him everything she has).
The movie proceeds very slowly indeed (you might find yourself wishing this train had been express rather than limited), overindulging Anderson’s love of long, complex, carefully detailed but tedious tracking shots—a tactic that accentuates the complete artificiality of the piece—as well as Wilson and Schwartzman’s inclination to dawdle and hesitate their way through scenes, an affectation that grows increasingly tiresome. (Brody, on the other hand, merely looks lost, and when Anjelica Huston shows up in the last real as mother superior in both senses, she does, too.) The humor is mostly of the fey, slightly off-kilter sort that Anderson initiates might fancy but most viewers will find feeble. (And it’s all accompanied by a score, featuring what sound like kazoos and a theramin, that’s as self-consciously quirky as the narrative.) A perfect example of the twee factor is the material handed to Wally Wolodarsky as Francis’ factotum Brendan, but it’s also the major element in the cameo by Bill Murray, an old pal of Anderson, who bookends the movie as an unlucky traveler. (He’s not the only unlucky one.)
The film really falls apart, however, when it decides to have the brothers learn what’s really important in life by having them encounter a tragedy involving a young boy’s death by drowning. Here, as throughout the picture, the Indian background and characters are curiously peripheral, important only insofar as they contribute to the westerners’ enlightenment (and sometimes, as in the case of Waris Ahluwalia as the train’s chief steward, made to seem caricatures). The story, as well as the way it’s told, exudes a self-centered attitude that’s more than a bit off-putting.
“The Darjeeling Limited” closes with the guys running to catch a train home that’s already departing the station and tossing away all their luggage to make it to the receding car. The act is symptomatic of how banal the picture’s imagery is—the brothers have rid themselves of past baggage through their adventure, get it? But in truth it would have been better for the filmmakers to have tossed away the script for their wheezing trainwreck of a movie and started with a fresh slate.