It's hard to approach a new film by Wes Anderson without feeling like you've walked into an argument. There's something about his dollhouse aesthetic, his storybook formality, his miniaturist's attention to detail and his dogged belief in the power of objects to elicit the most oblique and recondite emotions that seriously sets people off. Why is a question for another paragraph, but needless to say it's exactly this staunch commitment to artificiality that makes his work what it is.
Like all of Anderson's movies, "The Darjeeling Limited" takes place primarily in a single, evocative location. In this case, it's a train, although it's not so much an actual train as it is a romantic amalgam of the Orient Express and just about every other fragment of cultural nostalgia Anderson can access. Shot beautifully in India by cinematographer Robert Yeoman, "The Darjeeling Limited" was also written in country by Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, who collaborated on the screenplay as they traveled together.
But to say it's actually set there is a stretch. The India of the movie is more an idea than a reality, a whimsical Western projection that combines elements from 1930s picture books, films by Jean Renoir and Satyajit Ray, the Beatles' immersion in Eastern religion in the '60s, and centuries of Orientalism. Exotic, spiritual and, according to Peter Whitman (Adrien Brody), "spicy"-smelling, it's a magical mystery place where wayward foreigners can go to get their souls back on track.
Or so Francis (Owen Wilson) thinks. After the death of his father, the eldest son of the far-flung Whitman clan hustles his estranged younger brothers, Peter (Brody) and Jack (Schwartzman), aboard the Darjeeling Limited, hoping to embark on a spiritual journey across the Rajasthani desert. Francis has painstakingly mapped out the trip with the help of his assistant Brendan (Wally Wolodarsky), who has come along, lugging a printer, a laminator and a beleaguered attitude.
Francis is determined to accomplish three things on the voyage: bring his family closer, reunite with their mother (who is living in India, having become a nun) and discover the meaning or purpose of his life. Naturally, the minute they step aboard the train, long-term goals are waylaid by the usual short-term distractions and gratifications. Within what seems like moments, they're drinking, smoking, popping pills and chugging pain medication. Jack pursues Rita (Amara Karan), the pretty train stewardess, and Francis obsesses over his possessions and the fact that Peter has helped himself to their dead father's sunglasses.
Wilson, Brody and Schwartzman are like a contemporary, depressive version of the Three Stooges, and there's something inspired about Anderson's decision to cast them as brothers. They are linked not only by their prodigious noses, but also by their air of melancholy. And yet, what do they have to be sad about? Like many of Anderson's characters, the Whitmans are privileged, but this time the wealth becomes another source of absurdist humor. Francis wears a $6,000 belt and $3,000 loafers. Jack chooses a five-star Parisian hotel for his can't-get-out-of-bed nervous breakdown. They are, by any measure, ridiculous, and yet you can't help but feel sorry for them, they're so trapped in their little self-absorbed, self-mythologizing bubbles. Even when tragedy strikes, joining their fates with the fates of three young Indian brothers, they remain strangely like spectators, experiencing it in a mediated prism that combines Renoir's film with the album cover of "Abbey Road."
There's something acquisitive, even a little selfish, about the Whitmans' quest for meaning and transcendence. At their father's funeral, Peter's wife assures the squabbling brothers that they are all experiencing an equal amount of grief. On hearing that her sons are in India, mother Patricia (Anjelica Huston) sends word that now's not a good time to receive them, why don't they come back in the spring? When they pop in at the convent unannounced anyway, she defies maternal expectations. Is Patricia's devotion to those less fortunate than her sons -- and everyone is less fortunate than her sons -- noble or self-aggrandizing? That's the thing about spiritual quests, it can be hard to tell.