A colleague once said of Wes Anderson, "You either get him or you don't"— by which he meant you appreciate Anderson's genius, or you're a philistine with weak antennae for wit and beauty. Well, I get him and like him, but I'm not in the cult.
It's true that Rushmore, which made him a god among hipsters, captures the narcissistic bubble of a gifted adolescent. But Anderson has no distance on that narcissism: The hero's obnoxious self-centeredness is meant as a state of grace. In The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, his twee rectangular doll house frames, with their lush colors and coy off-symmetry, upstage his characters.
The Darjeeling Limited is more of the same, but its lyric melancholy is remarkably sustained. It's too bad it's not showing at a theater near you with Anderson's Hotel Chevalier, the short film that preceded it at the New York Film Festival and that serves as an overture to the feature.
You can see it online, though (you'll need iTunes), and you should — because for a change with Anderson, form and content magically jell. Hotel Chevalier is set in a Paris hotel room, its protagonist the forlorn Jack, played by Jason Schwartzman. A phone call breaks his reverie: His unfaithful ex-girlfriend, played by Natalie Portman, has tracked him down. She arrives and takes off her clothes. Is she here to stay or just reaffirming her hold?
In The Darjeeling Limited, Jack turns out to be Jack Whitman, one of three brothers who haven't seen each other since their father's death the year before. They're reuniting in India for what's meant as a journey of self-discovery, on a train called the Darjeeling Limited — another overdesigned doll house, but moving through a real countryside, which adds texture.
It's apparent that these brothers — children of privilege — are nevertheless floundering in the void left by their dad. Owen Wilson's Francis, his face bandaged from an accident, organized the trip and has assumed a patriarchal role, planning the brothers' days right down to their breaks for meditation. Adrien Brody's Peter is six weeks away from becoming a father — which for some reason has spurred him to leave without mentioning his trip to his pregnant wife. Jack is still running from his girlfriend. They drink, smoke and pass narcotics bottles back and forth. They're wary in one another's company.
The train becomes a movable circus, with a tall, disapproving steward (played by Waris Ahluwali) struggling to keep the boys in line — he'd fit in a Marx Brothers movie. Even more delightful is a stewardess named Rita (Amara Karan), who has a dizzy attraction to the woebegone Jack.
Anderson wrote The Darjeeling Limited with Schwartzman and his cousin, Roman Coppola, and they clearly understand the psychology of kids who are both spoiled and bereft. But they don't have much perspective on their characters' over-entitlement. There's a tragic interlude in rural India when the brothers happen on three boys who tumble into rapids. Is the boys' fragility supposed to mirror the Whitmans'? Or is their tightly knit, patriarchal community supposed to offer a contrast? I'm not sure what Anderson is going for, but the sequence — the movie's centerpiece — feels creepy and exploitative.
The final sequence saves the film. It's set in a convent in the foothills of the Himalayas, where the brothers' mother, played by Anjelica Huston, has fled to become a nun. Huston gives one of her irrationally great performances — the mother's fear of her sons' demands is between the lines, not in them.
The best thing about The Darjeeling Limited is that it's gorgeous in ways that have a larger meaning. Rural India turns out to be the perfect Wes Anderson locale. You almost believe that its intense colors represent his own spiritual longing — that he's reveling in the beauty as a way of warming up a universe of absent fathers and mothers.