The Darjeeling Limited is a metaphor-laden ride in which the characters all have baggage, both literal and figurative, that they cannot seem to shed because they have yet to understand that they would be less encumbered without it.
I am a fan of Wes Anderson, even though his movies generally leave me with a feeling of numbness on first viewing, and a sense of uncertainty as to whether or not I thought the film was any good from a plot and character standpoint. I find myself remembering scenes and images and in the days and weeks that follow; I enjoy revisiting my memories of it and pondering the quirks of characters, the mind of the characters, and the intent of the director. There aren't any big emotional payoffs or any neat plot twists. Dialogue that seems nonsensical, trivial, or awkward turns out to be easily related to overarching themes as the movie unfolds and rewinds in my mind's eye. Or maybe it's all just a big, steaming pile of pretentious nonsense, too twee and too precious for its own good. I can't decide. I can never decide. I remain baffled and frustrated, but something about them keeps me coming back.
"I have GOT to get off this train," said the stewardess, Rita. The train is the biggest metaphor, bigger even than the pile of Louis Vuitton luggage the three brothers, played by Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman, drag all over India in a quest for spiritual enlightenment and a return to being brothers "they way they used to be". One suspects that they never were the way they used to be.
Peter cannot let go of his father, who died in an accident he witnessed, and who he was not able to save. He carries around certain personal objects that do not fit him, or are outdated, like talismans. Meanwhile, he is terrified of becoming a father himself. Francis, survivor of a motorcycle accident that has left him wrapped in bandages, wants the brothers to become close, but constantly annoys both of them with his fussy, overbearing, control-freak ways. Jack pines for a girlfriend he can't leave, or who won't leave him, and of whom his two brothers disapprove. Meanwhile, he has casual sex with Rita with no more real forethought than he applies to slugging down narcotic cough syrup and pills of unknown provenance, just to make his surroundings more interesting and to take his mind off his ex-girlfriend.
But the brothers' most profound source of unhappiness is that their own family has failed to live up to their image of what a family should be. This longing for an idealized family and parents is a major theme in Anderson's movies. They resent their runaway mother, who did not show up for their father's funeral, they squabble over who should have possession of their father's belongings.
It is a bereaved Indian father who gives Peter the absolution he craves, not his brothers or his mother. Francis finally removes his bandages and lets his younger brothers see his wounds, both emotional and physical. Jack is the only one who seems largely unchanged…is this because the actor was a co-writer? It must be very hard to write for yourself.
All this makes it seem a serious movie, which it is not. There are two good hearty laughs to be found in it and many wry smiles. The brothers are exasperating and shallow, at times even petty, and yet you find yourself liking them all the same. I found these characters to be intriguing. Peter seems the most outwardly normal, but he has the strangest quirks. Francis is oddly sexless, almost monastic. One suspects he may very well end up living much as his mother does. I kept waiting for him to make some comment about his scarring and how it might affect his romantic life, but he never did. Jack is highly sexed, yet seems uncomfortable in his body, hiding behind his little porn star moustache. He yearns to be mysterious and exotic, or a romantic expatriate artiste, but when he attempts to act as such, it just comes off awkward and forced.
Owen Wilson is an actor I've never had a whole lot of use for, but I must admit that he was very good in this movie. He brought a sweetness to a character who could have been simply annoying. Adrien Brody was fine as Peter. His character had to display the most emotional range, and was also the most physical, with some episodes of good slapstick. Anderson clearly understood Brody's strengths and made them work. He and Wilson were effective in scenes together and had the chemistry of real brothers. I was less impressed with Jason Schwartzman. I have liked him a lot better in other movies. I felt he was overshadowed in this film whenever he had to go up against Brody and Wilson, despite being given the funniest lines. He did well in his scenes with Rita.
Wes Anderson's movies have been criticized for being too white, too rich (his main characters usually don't have money worries, Max Fischer aside), and for having a void in the center. I think setting this movie in India with all its beauty and diversity and having some of the strong supporting characters be Indian helped with the whiteness factor. But to criticize movies like this for having a void in the center kind of misses the point. His movies are about the void—the one that exists between people who yearn for that sense of connection. And the best way to bridge it is to stop taking yourself so damn seriously.