THE DARJEELING LIMITED
To be gifted with charm is to have a constant escape route from being brought to account; the films of Wes Anderson are all, to some degree, about the limitations of charm and the tearing away of the insulation it brings with it. There is a paradox here, of course, because Anderson's films are themselves always charming and whimsical, and indeed many critics, most notably David Thomson in a recent Guardian piece, have argued that Anderson's facility with the quirky, delightful and eccentric is the thing that will always prevent him becoming fully adult as a director and writer of film. Stern taskmasters will, as Thomson has, reject The Darjeeling Limited as more or the same, worse, as a film which appropriates Indian culture and landscape as a backdrop for the limited concerns of the American haute bourgeoisie, a group not unrepresented in contemporary culture.
Three estranged brothers meet on a train in India; Francis (Owen Wilson) had recently survived a disfiguring motorcycle accident and has decided that the time has come to seek spiritual enlightenment. He has summoned Jack and Peter and for the first days of their journey bosses them around, ordering their meals for them and handing them laminated itineraries of trips to temples and spiritual exercises. The idea that one could pursue enlightenment in this way is both comic and sad - the three brothers kneel swathed in garlands and listening to the sound of a hundred bells is both a brilliant parody of spiritual tourism and deeply poignant.
Some aspects of the film are almost painfully part of that side of middlebrow American popular culture in which people are in Denial about their Real Problems, and in need of experiences which will Teach them a Valuable Lesson. A charitable view, mostly sustainable, is that Anderson is at once parodying this and intelligent enough to accept that to parody it is to participate in it, and be complicit. The bloodstained bandages in which Francis is swathed are a correlative for the fact that no one much likes him, perhaps especially his brothers and the assistant whom he constantly and callously mocks for his alopecia; Jack and Peter have their problems too.
Peter (the hawklike Adrien Brody) is so afraid of loss that he is contemplating divorcing his pregnant wife lest worse befall him; Jack is a writer without originality whose short stories recapitulate arguments with his mistress. (In case there were any doubt of this, a short The Hotel Chevalier, widely available on the internet, also starring Jason Schwartzman as Jack and Natalie Portman as his mistress recapitulates what we hear of his new story. Schwartzman is also, to make matters more reflexive, the co-author, with Anderson and Roman Coppola, of The Darjeeling Limited.)
This is a comedy of manners in which bad manners are rebuked - Anglophone Indians overhear the brothers' bickering and politely affect non-comprehension. The long-suffering conductor of the train, whose waitress lover Jack seduces, eventually throws them off the train in the middle of nowhere - the train is already lost, and now they are, in the middle of life. If they ever achieve enlightenment, it is now, when they see three boys drowning and manage to save two of them - they act as ordinary decent human beings and stand bedraggled at the dead child's funeral. Proper human behaviour is not all that complicated and they manage it. And that funeral reminds them of their dead father and the silly squabble about his car which made them late for it. They meet up, briefly, with the mother (Anjelika Houston) who abandoned them to become a nun and we realize that perhaps they will never go home; they cast their matched elegant luggage aside - actualizing the psychobabble symbol of discarding old baggage crudely but effectively - and continue to ride, perhaps forever.
No one can accuse Anderson of subtlety, but, where The Royal Tennenbaums and The Life Aquatic let their protagonists off the hook, The Darjeeling Limited at least acknowledges that its trio of aimless brothers have a problem, need to improve. Along the way, they entertain us in a wry way but also raise the issue of how we too look to the people compelled to ride on trains with us, averting their gaze when our whimsical egocentrism becomes an embarrassment.