On the one hand, The Darjeeling Limited needs a strong father figure; on the other, it’s time Wes Anderson moved beyond the mixture of damage and quirky creativity neglectful parents can cause. Sending three hapless brothers on a train journey across India in what amounts to a colorfully underwhelming cinematic conveyance about escape rituals, he hasn’t lost his gift for meticulous craftsmanship. And even though he kills off the patriarch and sends other signals that he wants to overcome his father fixation, Anderson needs to find a more authoritative voice and use it to explore new territory.
The Whitman boys are wealthy, narcissistic naifs impaired by jealousy, paranoia and fear. Pain must be tamped down using whatever’s at hand—Indian cough syrup and painkillers, booze and cigarettes. Shopping counts as self-medication, and they’re world-class materialists. Jack (Jason Schwartzman) favors womanizing. The infantile Peter (Adrien Brody) has left the States without telling his pregnant wife. Control-freak Francis (Owen Wilson) has organized the trip a year after the sudden demise of their father and brings along an assistant to smooth the way. Having recently attempted suicide, Francis insists they're seeking spiritual enlightenment and not their mother (Anjelica Huston), who’s hiding in a convent at the base of the Himalayas.
Typical ugly American tourists in many respects, they’re superficially interested in the landscape and culture. India is merely a tool in their search for security and fraternal camaraderie. When they’re thrown off the train, they get the chance to act spontaneously and unselfishly, and the incident triggers baby steps toward cleansing themselves of self-pity and resentment. The siblings’ willingness to try is represented by the shedding of their father’s hand-painted luggage as they hop aboard another train.
None-too-subtly, Anderson employs the vaguely Buddhist idea that repetition leads to progress. The more times a trip is taken or a ritual repeated, the greater the chances of a different outcome. Magical thinking perhaps—and no one will want Francis (or Wilson) to take it to heart where suicide is concerned—but at least it indicates an openness to change. So too, Anderson inches away from his tinkering aesthetic insularity. He designs another vivid, hermetically sealed world (accompanied by a terrific soundtrack) yet seems more willing to break the seal.
Repetition won’t cut it if Anderson aspires to make more than meandering beguilements, however. To mature as a filmmaker, he needs to leave behind precious formalism and strike a better balance between narrative and atmospherics. Step one is finding collaborators who, unlike credited co-writers Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, won’t indulge any fuzzy adolescent transparency and who can help conceive a worthy protagonist like Royal Tenenbaum or Steve Zissou. Here’s hoping The Darjeeling Limited concludes his father trilogy and that in his next project, an animated version of Roald Dahl’s novel The Fantastic Mr. Fox, he’s not still stuck in his Oedipal phase wearing a choo-choo train conductor’s hat, no matter how stylish a chapeau it may be. —
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Cast: Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman and Anjelica Huston
Director: Wes Anderson
Screenwriters: Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola & Jason Schwartzman
Producers: Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Roman Coppola and Lydia Dean Pilcher
Genre: Comedy drama
Rating: R for language
Running time: 91 min.
Release date: September 29, 2007 NY, October 5 exp.