Wes Anderson takes us on another whimsical journey. Owen Wilson leads a trio of idiots abroad in Wes Anderson's Indian comedy.
It's usually easy to sort movies into categories such as "Endearing,"Maddening,"Naive" or "Sophisticated." Then there's the work of Wes Anderson, who can have you rolling your eyes impatiently one minute and misting up or barking with laughter the next. In "Bottle Rocket,"Rushmore,"The Royal Tenenbaums" and "The Life Aquatic," Anderson has created a rigorously art-directed alternate universe where sensitive, self-involved, youngish men struggle to make peace with their egocentric parents and chase elusive love objects.
And so it is in "The Darjeeling Limited," a hit-or-miss movie that is nonetheless touching and effervescent with charm. The Whitman brothers, pampered heirs of a well-to-do family, reunite on a train crossing India. They haven't spoken since their father's funeral a year earlier. Their mother has run off to become a missionary nun, leaving the three as drifting adult orphans.
The oldest and pushiest, played by Owen Wilson, is convinced that the trip will provide them with a transcendent spiritual experience. The youngest, Jason Schwartzman, is a despondent horndog who transcribes his daily experiences and calls it fiction. Adrien Brody is the most broken up by their father's death; he wears the old man's oversized 1970s sunglasses, which make him look like a giant-eyed insect. As the scenery streaks by outside their sleeping-car window, they wait for cosmic insight to strike.
For all their prep-school poise and politesse, the Whitmans are nitwits, and their dealings with each other, their fellow passengers and the locals are a mad tea party comedy of manners. With a mountain of valises and steamer trunks passed down from their dad, they are cartoon ambassadors of materialism, and arrogant in a childishly straightforward way.
They're funny, but appalling, too. Schwartzman sees the lissome attendant for their first-class compartment as a blossom to be plucked, and he advances on her with puppy-dog eyes and the announcement "I feel you might be important in my life." Wilson has brought a cringing personal assistant along for the trip, under strict instructions to stay out of sight lest he compromise the journey's spiritual purity. Brody, who is nearly 35, just looks pitiable and elfin, and you get a little uncomfortable.
Anderson clearly appreciates India, filming the location scenes with a vibrant lyricism. His characters don't. Wilson is forever hunting for a power adapter that will put the country on his own Western frequency. He hustles his little group through an elaborate itinerary of temple-worshipping, bell-ringing and feather-burying rituals, but mystical consciousness eludes them. These smug sahibs find it nearly impossible to communicate with the natives, and pass the time squabbling over their inheritance and getting looped on Indian painkillers.
The characters aren't much more than personality traits, but the actors flesh them out and react against one another amusingly. Wilson, whose plaintive delivery gives comic ideas a perverse spin, is swathed in bandages from a near-fatal (and possibly self-inflicted) motorcycle crash. In light of Wilson's recent hospitalization, seeing him in a turban of surgical gauze could be a macabre or sad experience.
But Anderson is irreverent about trauma -- at least until the brothers, kicked off the train for general obnoxiousness, attend a funeral in a rural village. The solemn ceremony throws them back into recollections of their father's interment. In a flashback we see that the trio turned the memorial into a fashion event, dressing in black shirts, and then into a farce, with a manic detour to an auto shop to reclaim one of dad's vintage cars. They won't become men until they work through their grief and move on, and the village funeral begins the process.
"The Darjeeling Limited" is a step toward maturity for Anderson, too. His visual ideas are still overcalculated and the tone is often precious, but emotionally he seems to have expanded. His love of the ridiculous remains strong, but his love for his absurd characters is stronger than ever.
Colin Covert 612-673-7186