The estranged brothers Whitman have reunited for a journey on board The Darjeeling Limited, a colorful old train traversing the Rajasthan region of India. Along the way, they will stop to visit temples ("Probably one of the most spiritual places on Earth!") and shop for souvenirs (slippers, cobras, pepper spray), with plenty of time to take in the sights, sample the local delicacies (lime-flavored drinks, opiate-rich cough syrups) and wonder where, exactly, they're destined to arrive.
Francis (Owen Wilson), the eldest, has organized the trip despite a recent motorcycle mishap that left his head bandaged in gauze, but fully conscious that the Whitman boys have more than geographical distances to cross. It is the journey, he knows, and not the destination that counts, even as he ensures they're heading in the general direction of a particular convent in the Himalayan foothills, home to a nun called Sister Whitman, first name Patricia (Anjelica Huston), better known to the boys as Mom.
Father died a year ago and mother skipped the funeral. Both absences continue to haunt the Whitman brothers, each of whom, as befits their name, contain a multitude of hurt — as well as a signature look. Jack (Jason Schwartzman), the youngest, mourns a recent breakup with his girlfriend and tends to go barefoot in expensive, well-cut suits. With oversized sunglasses, pink boxer shorts, and a gigantic nose, middle child Peter (Adrien Brody) broods over a baby expected in the coming month from a woman he isn't entirely sure he ought to have married. Francis wears his crown of gauze, over injuries physical and otherwise, and hides his insecurities behind the mask of confidence that comes naturally to firstborn sons.
Individually damaged and isolated in their styles, the Whitman boys share one thing: a handsome set of trunks, suitcases, satchels, and bags passed down from their father. Luxuriously constructed in leather and emblazoned with matching cartoon motifs (animals, palm trees), the luggage was designed by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, but it's writer-director Wes Anderson who turns it into baggage.
Literalizing the emotional baggage of the Whitman brothers is an awfully blunt conceit, and one that points directly to what works and what doesn't in Darjeeling. Anderson half succeeds in escaping the impasse of his most recent picture, The Life Aquatic, the first where his extravagant sense of whimsy — storybook set, color-coded costumes, yearning pop songs — failed to carry emotion and so flailed as mere (and maddening) mannerism. That stumble may have been unavoidable on the heels of The Royal Tenenbaums, a high triumph of tragicomic imagination where style and feeling are inextricable, mutually dependent.
When Ben Stiller sports a tracksuit in Tenenbaums, it's the saddest kind of joke, signaling his readiness to save his kids at a moment's notice as well as stasis, fear, and insecurity about his role in the larger Tenenbaum family. You could name a dozen movies since Tenenbaums that try on similar sartorial gimmicks, none of which grasp what's at stake behind the style — in one of 2007's acclaimed indie releases, Juno, to take only the most recent example, the running gag of a randomly appearing track team decked out in cutesy matching outfits functions as a momentary touch of colorful, empty hipster formalism.
Anderson perfected such strategies in Rushmore (1998), the most influential indie since 1992's Reservoir Dogs. Self-referential from the get-go, Darjeeling nods to that touchstone in its opening sequence: Bill Murray, resurrected as a hipster hero in Rushmore, rushes to catch the departing Darjeeling and, to the strains of "This Time Tomorrow" by the Kinks, fails. Has Anderson sensed the need to move on? Filming in a strange milieu impossible to micromanage forces a somewhat looser grip on the material, and it results in a story that pitches from the dramatically precise (Jack's fleeting romance with an employee of the Darjeeling) to the skittishly farcical. "We're just trying to experience something," muses Francis, summarizing the sincerity and confusion of Darjeeling itself.
A companion piece to Tenenbaums more than a step in new directions, Darjeeling is a movie about people trapped in themselves and what it takes to get free — a movie, quite literally, about letting go of your baggage. We bring our own to the movies, so let me cop to mine. I was moved by Darjeeling, flaws and all, but if my job is to explain why, I find it difficult for reasons that are none of my business. From the minute Wilson walks onscreen, face covered in scars, eyes full of trouble, Darjeeling is warped by the gravitas of his recent suicide attempt. Anderson and Wilson are old friends and frequent collaborators, of course, and it's hard not to sense them working through more than one impasse here.