To call “The Darjeeling Limited” precious is less a critical judgment than a simple statement of fact, equivalent to saying that the movie is in color, that it’s set in India or that it’s 91 minutes long. It’s synonymous with saying the movie was directed by Wes Anderson. By now — “The Darjeeling Limited” is his fifth feature film — Mr. Anderson’s methods and preoccupations are as familiar as the arguments for and against them. (See an essay in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly for the prosecution and a profile in this week’s New York magazine for the defense.) His frames are, once again, stuffed with carefully placed curiosities, both human and inanimate; his story wanders from whimsy to melancholy; his taste in music, clothes, cars and accessories remains eccentric and impeccable.
And like his other recent films, “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” this new one celebrates a sensibility at once cliquish and inclusive. It reflects the aesthetic obsessions of a tiny coterie that anyone with the price of a ticket is free to join. (Charter members include Owen Wilson, one of the film’s three leading men, and his co-star Jason Schwartzman, who wrote the script with Mr. Anderson and Roman Coppola.)
Precious, in any case, is a word with two meanings, which both might apply to “The Darjeeling Limited.” This shaggy-dog road trip, in which three semi-estranged brothers travel by rail across India, is unstintingly fussy, vain and self-regarding. But it is also a treasure: an odd, flawed, but nonetheless beautifully handmade object as apt to win affection as to provoke annoyance. You might say that it has sentimental value.
Whether sentimental value can be willed into being and marketed with movie studio money is an interesting question. What is beyond doubt is that Mr. Anderson’s main characters and creative collaborators share with him a passion for collecting rare objects and unusual experiences, all of which they handle with exquisite, jealous care.
The fraternal trio in “The Darjeeling Limited” — Francis, Jack and Peter Whitman — express, and perhaps construct, their personalities largely through their attachment to things. Francis (Mr. Wilson) has an expensive leather belt, which he tentatively offers as a gift to Peter (Adrien Brody), who cherishes a pair of sunglasses that once belonged to their father. The third brother, Jack (Mr. Schwartzman), is a bit less of a commodity fetishist, though he does have a thing for the savory snacks served on Indian trains (and for the women who serve them).
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Anatomy of a Scene: ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ NOV. 16, 2009
The Darjeeling Limited – Wes Anderson – Fox Searchlight – Movies SEPT. 9, 2007
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Francis, Peter and Jack share a huge set of luggage, like those sunglasses a legacy of the father whose death hangs over their journey like a mournful mist. All those grips and valises, piled onto railways cars, buses, donkey carts and other conveyances, can be taken as a metaphor, a kind of visual pun on the emotional baggage these brothers are clearly carrying around. (By the way, this matched, monogrammed set of symbols, we learn in the credits, was designed by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, with “suitcase wildlife drawings” by Eric Anderson.)
The trip has been planned by Francis, with compulsive attention to detail (perhaps a bit of self-satire on the director’s part) and with an explicit therapeutic purpose. He wants them all to bond, to be “brothers like we used to be,” to “say yes to everything.”
Mostly he expects Peter and Jack to assent to his control-freak instructions, and the friction that arises from their resistance gives “The Darjeeling Limited” its off-kilter comic texture. The movie may be designed within an inch of its life, but there is life in it all the same, an open, relaxed narrative rhythm that cuts against the tight visual arrangements.
Part of the pleasure of watching it comes from never knowing quite what will happen next. Not that everything that happens is pleasant. Wes Anderson’s world may be a place of wonder and caprice, but it is also a realm of melancholy and frustration, as if all the cool, exotic bric-a-brac had been amassed to compensate for a persistent feeling of emptiness. The Whitman boys may seem happy-go-lucky, but on closer inspection they don’t look very happy at all.
And even when we learn bits and pieces of their history — their father is dead; their mother (Anjelica Huston) ran off to become a nun; they have been variously disappointed in love and friendship — the sorrow is never traced to its source. Nor is it ever entirely banished. (Some of that sadness drifts in from beyond the screen; it is hard to look at Mr. Wilson’s bruised, bandaged face and weary eyes without being reminded of his recent suicide attempt.)