Wes Anderson is one divisive dude.
For every person who sees his movies as kitsch odysseys where dysfunctional families trade witty insults to an ultra-hip indie soundtrack, there's someone shrugging their shoulders, wondering why everyone is getting so excited by a scarf-wearing ponce making films about unbearably twee assholes and their loathsome lives. For my sins, I fall in the first camp, but I'm aware that lately Anderson has been in danger of treading that dangerously thin line between 'quirky' and 'wacky' - 2004's The Life Aquatic
in particular was at times so 'out there' that it threatened to never come back down to Earth.
The Darjeeling Limited goes some way to rectifying that apparent over-reliance on quirkiness, although Anderson is still seemingly unable to stop himself from piling on the character defects. More straightforward than Aquatic and more focused than Tenenbaums, it's the story of three estranged brothers who agree to take a spiritual journey to India via train, one year after their father's funeral. Francis (Wilson), the domineering brother, is covered in bandages after a motorcycle crash; Peter (Brody) is an apparent kleptomaniac, taking refuge from his pregnant wife; and Jack (Schwartzman) is a writer-cum-lothario, fresh from boning girlfriend Natalie Portman in the Anderson-directed short Hotel Chevalier, which acts as a pseudo-prequel. Together, high on prescription drugs, the brothers bicker their way through an exotic trip full of incidents, most of which would be considered farcical rather than spiritual, none of which feature on Francis' strict itinerary.
You'd struggle to call either of the three leads likeable, but the trials and tribulations of their strained relationship is what keeps The Darjeeling Limited right on track. The dynamic is excellent: forever arguing (mostly due to Francis' over-bearing attitude) and often at each other's throats ("I love you too but I'm gonna mace you in the face!" says Jack during one scrap), the back-and-forth between the three siblings never gets old, with the brothers changing their allegiance amongst one another depending on who's pissing them off.
One scene illustrates their differences perfectly. At Francis' insistence, the brothers find their own space and perform a ritual with a peacock feather, as dictated by a set of laminated instructions, before reconvening. "Which way did yours blow?" asks Jack excitedly. "You were supposed to keep it," responds Francis. "I buried mine," admits Peter, sheepishly. Communication, it seems, is not one of the family's strong points.
Their 'Indie Marx Brothers' act works brilliantly; so well in fact, when the film hits a speed bump halfway through and takes a dramatic shift in tone, you feel like you've been clobbered with a sucker punch to the side of the head. Thankfully, there aren't too many syrupy life lessons to be learned as a result, and Anderson approaches the film's more weighty themes with the grace and diligence that's become his trademark.
From then on, Darjeeling slows down to enjoy the scenery, giving Wilson, Brody and Schwartzman ample room to expand their characters into more than just feuding family members. Wilson in particular is outstanding as the bossy, damaged Francis, giving him just enough pathos to compensate for his glaringly obvious flaws (one of which is removing his false tooth without warning). Schwartzman lends Jack some of his trademark slacker qualities, sporting a distinctly un-hip moustache and permanently attached to his (or more likely Anderson's) iPod, yet still able to bed the train's stewardess without breaking a sweat. Brody has less to work with, but the aforementioned gear change gives him his own journey to travel, and the Oscar-winner is more than up to the task.
As much a character as any of the three leads is the movie's luscious setting - India is truly a feast for the senses. Anderson captures the country's beauty with a great degree of reverence - there are no Lost In Translation-style culture clashes here - and every frame bursts with beauty, almost overwhelmingly so. Even the titular train is delightfully charming (try using those words when describing the 3:15 to Stansted). From lush vista to lush vista, The Darjeeling Express is a sensationally good-looking movie, by far a country mile Anderson's most visually striking picture. They say it's all about the journey and not the destination, but when the destination looks this incredible, you'll be forgiven for sightseeing when you should be paying attention.
The Darjeeling Limited hangs together on the slightest of premises, Anderson relying on heavy visual stimulation and the dynamism of his three leads to keep the story moving. It's a frequently meandering film, content to stop once in a while, take five, soak in the details, then trundle on in a different direction. Some people need - or demand - a more rigid structure to their movies, but to railroad a movie like this would be to remove its charm. As ambiguous and frustrating as it can often be, The Darjeeling Limited is a film of great art and passion; vibrant, charming and poignant, it's a ride you won't want to get off, no matter where it takes you.