Enlightenment will elude you when you’re looking for it, and find you when you’re not. That’s a possible theme of The Darjeeling Limited, the new exercise in melancholia from Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums). The movie unfolds in the same precisely compartmentalized place as Anderson’s other films — in his head, really. Disappointed people slouch in the dead center of symmetrical compositions while the soundtrack ushers in mournful French singers or Kinks B-sides. It’s a remarkably consistent universe, and Anderson — happily for his fans, unhappily for his detractors — shows no signs of wanting to leave it. Or does he?
Head and face swathed in bandages from a suicide attempt (an unintended tabloid irony), Owen Wilson’s Francis Whitman has called his younger brothers Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) to join him in India for a train trip. They haven’t spoken since their father’s funeral a year ago, and Francis, who issues commands in the passive-aggressive form of suggestions (“Can we agree on that?” is his familiar refrain; “No” is not an optional response), seems to think only a ride on the Darjeeling Limited will clear their heads and bring them together. That, and frequent touristy stops to sample Indian rituals and make themselves feel spiritually connected.
Unfortunately for Francis’ well-laid plans (his laminated itineraries recalling Dignan’s “75-year plan” in Anderson and Wilson’s debut Bottle Rocket), this is a Wes Anderson film, where disconnection prevails. This is the second Anderson movie in a row (after The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) in which people are shoehorned together on transportation while never feeling more isolated. Jack, nursing his hurt over his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman, who appears in the film’s short prelude Hotel Chevalier), throws himself into a fling with comely stewardess Rita (Amara Karan). Peter wears his father’s prescription glasses even though they give him headaches. All three brothers dose themselves out of unhappiness with various Indian anodynes.
The Darjeeling Limited has the rambling, random quality of life; India is an unpredictable place where real pain coexists with deep pleasure, and the brothers Whitman (one vowel away from “Whiteman”) do their best to laminate it and impose their will on it. The folly of this is neatly encapsulated in an anecdote when Peter buys a cobra, which escapes its skull-and-crossbones box. You can’t put India in a box, and for the first time, Anderson’s tight rectangular compositions seem insufficient to take it all in. The movie finds Anderson straining to peel away his mannerisms and respond to a world outside the ones he usually so meticulously designs. (The train is fictional, but is similar to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.) Written by Anderson along with Schwartzman and his cousin Roman Coppola, the script drifts into tragedy, from which the brothers seem to learn nothing because they treat it as something to be learned from — again, imposing design on chaos — rather than something real to be responded to honestly. Only during a late-inning encounter in which nothing much happens do the brothers seem to get the true point of their journey.
Much like Jack, who compulsively puts Peter Sarstedt on his iPod to woo the objects of his desire and writes transparently autobiographical stories (“The characters are fictional,” he keeps protesting), Anderson has wanted to forge clean, crisp art out of the slop and hysteria of emotional life. The Darjeeling Limited — preceded as it is by Hotel Chevalier, perhaps his most rigidly formalist work ever — seems to point towards a brave new world for Anderson. The characters inhabit that same Anderson headspace I talked about earlier (the movie’s title doesn’t just refer to the train), but by the end they’ve cast that off along with the burdens of their past. It’s a beautiful film.