In Wes Anderson’s films thus far, it seems there are always troubled father-child relationships. In “Rushmore,” Max is uninspired by his barber father and seeks out a parental figure in a rich CEO. In “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Royal tries to connect with his adult children after a long absence, much to their chagrin. And in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” the title character tries to act as a father to a young man who may or may not be his son.
In “The Darjeeling Limited,” the father is dead, and he is missed. It is debatable as to whether his three adult sons, Peter (Adrien Brody), Jack (Jason Schwartzman), and Francis (Owen Wilson) are ready to face the world without him. They squabble over his possessions, and, in a joyously frantic flashback, go to desperate lengths to get his old car back.
The family has fallen apart since the father’s death, and to bring them together again, Francis calls them all to India for a highly organized spiritual journey, complete with laminated daily itineraries. They travel to various villages and shrines, hoping for some kind of enlightenment, all the while keeping and spilling secrets, bickering, giving good and bad advice, and finding more about each other than they ever really knew.
Because the family has lost its anchor, they wander throughout the country, confused and unstable. Francis has recently been involved in a not-so-accidental wreck, Peter is afraid of becoming a father, and Jack is stuck in a destructive relationship.
Like the family, the film is free to wander as well. It’s an interesting departure from the meticulous storytelling of Anderson’s previous films. It’s not a slow film, but one that stops to ponder rather than get wrapped up in intricate details.
Indeed, it is the lack of such details that distinguishes this film from Anderson’s other work. Elaborate production design and motifs like a book, a play, or an education film marked the others, while this is a bit freer. The complex visual approach that some thought overloaded “The Life Aquatic” has found a better balance with the subtle emotions Anderson is so good at instilling in his characters.
Story and acting wise, Anderson’s films are all about understatement. The signature deadpan performances from Schwartzman and Wilson are back, and Adrien Brody fits quite nicely into the traditional ensemble. Bill Murray and Anjelica Huston pop up in smaller roles, as do a few bit players from the other films.
The familiar faces add to the effect that, though this movie has a different approach and flow, you know you’re watching a Wes Anderson film. “The Darjeeling Limited” is destined to stand with “Rushmore” and “Tenenbaums” as some of the best modern examples of masterful balance between a director’s personal stamp and emotions that are universal. In a way, some scenes seem to wrap up and put to rest some of the questions and themes of the other films, as if the director is finally putting the “father” to rest.
“Darjeeling” is also accompanied by a short prequel film, “Hotel Chevalier,” starring Schwartzman and Natalie Portman, which adds a nice bit of back story for Jack’s character, helping to explain his character as you see it in the feature.