As an American filmmaker with no particular pedigree (like the Coppolas or Hustons), Wes Anderson’s penchant for exclusiveness could have put him in a precarious position in the aggressively democratized world of Hollywood cinema. As it turns out, he occupies a not unenviable niche, probably because his brand of snobbishness has less to do with the banal quest for wealth and breeding than a fascination for twee eccentricities. Or more to the point, for people with the means to indulge these antics, as in the manner of that unobtrusive rich kid in college who didn’t have to work and could cut an entire semester to go on a dolphin- watching expedition, returning months later with a deep tan and clad in well-worn cashmere.
Anderson’s last film “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” had been about just that kind of kid, grown to late middle age (played with spot-on brilliance by Bill Murray), enthralled by his own, boyish wanderlust, and undercut by a stylish disillusionment with life and equally stylish personal problems — usually to do with beautiful women.
Anderson’s latest is “The Darjeeling Limited,” which has not one but three such guys locked into the Anderson mode of privileged, preppified self-absorption. They are the Whitman brothers, who convene in India after a period of estrangement, to travel together on a train whimsically called the Darjeeling Express. The objective, laid down by eldest bro Francis (Owen Wilson) is to “catch up, bond and get some spiritual healing.” Coming from a man whose face is almost completely bandaged from a motorcycle accident, this New Age announcement resounds with weirdness (we learn later that the accident was a botched suicide attempt). Middle brother Peter (Adrien Brody), surreptitiously casting glances at Francis’s mangled visage, is disinclined to cooperate. He has his own screw-up to contend with: His wife is about to have their baby but he wants a divorce. Peter had come on this trip as an excuse to be away from the birth and could care less about spiritual enlightenment.
The two elder brothers are mistrustful and resentful about past wrongdoings, broken promises, secrets that weren’t kept (Isn’t that always the way with two elder siblings?). Trying to intervene and make peace is the youngest brother, Jack (Jason Schwartzman), who — in the tradition of last borns — can be altruistic but at the same time never forgets to cater to his own needs, most of which involve cool cocktails, the right music piping out of his i-Pod to fit his moods, and love interests. The train rumbles on, and the brothers smoke and drink and occasionally punch each other. They’re looked after by the lovely train attendant Rita (Amara Karan), who gets fed-up with their incessant squabblings and remarks plaintively, “Why are you such pigs?” before the trio is officially kicked off the Darjeeling Express.
“Darjeeling Limited” has some supremely sublime moments. Unlike the Whitman brothers, there’s nothing self-indulgent about the way Anderson builds the story to push the characters up front, in all their disgrace and glory. For all their idiosyncrasies, they morph into engaging, likable people before our eyes — Rita would have seen that if they’d been given the time to redeem themselves. The brothers switch from ugly Americans to selfless heroes, as in one memorable sequence when they jump into a river to save three Indian brothers from drowning. They’re subsequently invited to spend the night at the boys’ house, stretched out on an impossibly narrow mattress in their complimentary Darjeeling Express pajamas. And toward the end the Whitmans have a brief, unsatisfying reunion with their mother (played by Anderson’s muse Anjelica Huston), who presides over a convent in the Himalayas. They go to her like puppies seeking warmth and reassurance, and she meets them halfway before neatly escaping from maternal obligations.
As in most other Anderson movies, the women in “Darjeeling” provide the men with catalysts for finding themselves, and their presence has more to do with “spiritual healing” than simple satisfaction, sexual or otherwise. Schwarzman’s character is the most unambiguous when dealing with women. He’s OK with being insecure, preferring to hack and monitor his girlfriend’s (Natalie Portman) answering service than contact her outright. He also accepts he’s a jerk, practically forcing himself on Rita before saying that all he wants is “to talk.”
The self-serving sensitivity and hesitant romanticism is true American preppy, first identified by F. Scott Fitzgerald and honed by J.D. Salinger. Now the torch has passed into the capable hands of Wes Anderson, and the flame is subtle, but enticing.