Wes Anderson is an ongoing source of bafflement, especially for those of us who still have any patience for his films. Ever since Rushmore, we've been waiting for him to realize his tremendous potential as a filmmaker. But if Anderson is J.D. Salinger—the writer whose presence hangs most palpably over his work— Rushmore may be destined to be his Catcher in the Rye: a note-perfect coming-of-age story whose status as an adolescent classic paralyzes its author for the rest of his career. His subsequent films have been more like Salinger's Glass family stories. They're miniaturist studies of haute-bourgeois anomie that, however deftly sketched, ultimately shut down on themselves.
Like Anderson's recent films, the Glass stories have a rueful mood all their own, and even the least successful among them are pleasurable objects to contemplate. But they feel like the work of a writer who's more interested in cataloging his private world than opening up to the world outside. In the end, Salinger went all the way inside, and retreated from his art. I hope Anderson doesn't follow the same path.
The Darjeeling Limited (Fox Searchlight) struggles to open out from the beautiful,stiflingworld inside Anderson's head. But like in his last movie, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Anderson makes the mistake of keeping its protagonists trapped for too long aboard a means of conveyance. The niftily appointed boat has been replaced this time by a niftily appointed train, wending its way from Rajasthan to the Himalayas. Occupying one compartment are three American brothers who haven't spoken to one another in a year: from oldest to youngest, Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson), Peter Whitman (Adrien Brody), and Jack Whitman (Jason Schwartzman).
These brothers have some serious emotional baggage, and it's by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton. A set of leather trunks embossed with safari animals that once belonged to their now-dead father follows them everywhere, lugged by porters or piled atop rickshaws as the boys bicker in Hindu temples, smuggle a poisonous snake aboard, and eventually get thrown off the train in the middle of nowhere. What happens next is, to Anderson's credit, a truly shocking twist that takes both the Whitmans and the audience to a far more serious place. But what's not to his credit is what Anderson does once he gets there: He uses the suffering of an Indian village (and a wonderful, nearly wordless performance from Indian actor Irrfan Khan) as a backdrop for the brothers' self-discovery. Jonah Weiner explores the director's queasy treatment of race at length (and with spoilers) on Slate,so I'll keep it simple: This part of the movie is Anderson at his worst: self-serious, aestheticizing, and morally yucky.
Things turn around again in the last third, as the boys track down their mother (Anjelica Huston) in a Himalayan nunnery to ask why she didn't attend their father's funeral. But the film wants to make emotional omelets without breaking aesthetic eggs. We can't really learn about the Whitmans' motivations—the mother's ambivalence toward her family, Peter's irrational desire to desert his pregnant wife—while continuing to smile at their non sequiturs and to admire their neat pajamas. Huston and Adrien Brody are good enough actors to hint at the conflict beneath these cool surfaces, but Schwartzman is perfectly attuned to the movie's tone—and thus impenetrable. Owen Wilson is Owen Wilson, unflappably cheery and casually nuts. He spends most of the movie with his head wrapped in gauze bandages, an eerie foreshadowing of his recent real-life troubles.
Hotel Chevalier, a 13-minute short that may be shown before The Darjeeling Limited in theaters beginning next week (the studio is being coy, but the short is available on iTunes), takes place two weeks before the events of the main movie and supplies a key element in Jack's backstory: It seems that sometime between his father's death and the brothers' trip to India, the youngest Whitman holed up in a Paris hotel room, where he was visited by his manipulative ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman) for a night of ill-advised relapse sex.
Hotel Chevalier is a slight, appealing amuse-bouche of a movie, but both it and Darjeeling are haunted by Anderson's oppressive good taste. The costumes by Milena Canonero (Marie Antoinette) are so exquisitely imagined as to provoke covetousness on the viewer's part (I want a bright-orange, gold-edged Rajasthani shawl!). Brand names are everywhere, some of them made up (the perfume Portman wears is called "Voltaire #6"), others fetishistically nostalgic (in a recurring song, the speaker compliments his lover: "All your clothes are by Balmain"). The suave soundtrack of Ravi Shankar ragas, Kinks songs, and vintage French pop makes you think not about the Whitmans' spiritual journey, but about the availability of the soundtrack album.
Together, these well-curated accoutrements conjure the feeling of visiting a friend's impeccable apartment and wondering where to set down your glass. The surfaces shimmer, but they don't invite you in. Maybe Anderson needs to shoot someone else's screenplay, to get outside his own head for a while and into another's sensibility. It's telling that his funniest and liveliest recent work was a commercial for American Express.