I like to picture Wes Anderson, scouting for the India-set Darjeeling Limited, stepping off a train in Rajasthan, and getting whomped by the country’s storied sprawling energy. And after opening with a hectic taxi ride (starring Bill Murray), Darjeeling does feel comparatively subdued, as well as less neurotically hyperdesigned than the cartoonish Life Aquatic (easy enough) or Royal Tenenbaums. In the latter, Anderson’s meticulous pseudo-New York touchingly mirrored the full-fledged mythology and subculture that grows out of a family, and in Darjeeling’s three allegedly adult brothers, warily reuniting for the soul-searching trip, we see three sons bereft of context.
Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (co-screenwriter Jason Schwartzman) set forth with Francis (Owen Wilson), the eldest, who has micromanaged an itinerary for their “spiritual journey” and bonding attempt. In natty suits (lest they be confused with people actually traveling in India), smoking in a sleeping compartment that soon evokes the rambunctious bunked bedroom they must have shared, they begin a sometimes prickly thaw, obliquely passing secrets or cultivating woundedness. Despite converging from different stations in life — impending fatherhood for middle child Peter, anguished twentysomething breakup-hood for Jack, and $3,000 loafers for mysteriously head-bandaged Francis — they shuffle under the cloud of their parents’ absence and yet presence. Their father’s funeral, one year ago, casts a long shadow, and we hear that their mother, a free spirit, has absconded AWOL to a mountaintop convent.
Some of which might sound a mite familiar, and, also like Anderson’s other work, Darjeeling toes the line between characters who throw down obstacles to emotional engagement and a director who is sometimes too willing to collude with them, extravagantly. But the director’s films are mistreated by being rated or hated as a series of dioramas (even if you feel like someone explaining about a terminally fey friend that “you just have to get to know him”). The best, and most lasting, thing about the modestly 90-minute Darjeeling is the embedded feel for a brotherly dynamic and its brusquely intimate end-runs around being “grown-up persons” (to quote a character in Jean Renoir’s The River, Anderson’s avowed inspiration). You’ll have to tolerate a ridiculously mustachioed Schwartzman mesmerizing their cute train attendant, or Wilson (now somewhat distressing in those bandages rather than deadpan) unspooling crazily long-winding dialogue and bossing around his alopecia-afflicted assistant. But if the characters survive mostly on tics (and Indian cold remedies), Brody uncovers something newly fragile with the dour Peter, a father-to-be who, typically for Anderson, delivers a heartsick-making line (about divorce) while trailing off.
Besides furnishing an eye-popping palette and cascading excerpts from Satyajit Ray’s soundtracks, India predictably serves as land of epiphany when Anderson clears his lined-up gang and fussy POV off the screen for a little-inflected local funeral. Even so, it’s the most moving segment of the film, a reminder that Anderson needn’t (and doesn’t always) prepackage your memories of his film’s big moments with choice album cuts hitched to slo-mo. A tacked-on ending (starring Anjelica Huston as Mom) suggests that Anderson may think he’s made a richer movie than he has, but the filmmaker’s past grandiose efforts (and, like Tarantino, his enervating descendants) shouldn’t condemn his latest, minor journey.