’Darjeeling’ is writer’s cup of tea

The Darjeeling Limited may be the best film Wes Anderson has ever made. Like most Anderson movies, it shows rich young people dealing with estranged parents, has a phenomenal soundtrack (which I listened to while writing of this review) and quirkily beautiful cinematography. It is also, well, weird. But the real achievement of the film is its emotional poignancy. It achieves both a humorous critique on the materialism and privilege of its characters and a moving affirmation of their humanity. Anderson tightens and lightens his signature style, and the result is an enjoyable, heartrending film.

Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) are three brothers who have not spoken since their father”s funeral. Francis arranges for them to meet up in India and travel across the country on a train called the Darjeeling Limited on a quest for fraternal bonding and personal spirituality. He has hired a man named Brendan (Wallace Wolodarsky) to plan an itinerary for them, a helper who is to leave a laminated schedule for the next day under their doors and be otherwise absent. The brothers all seem game for the journey at first, but it quickly becomes apparent that they are too selfish and materialistic to achieve any kind of meaningful experience on the trip.

Peter is going to be a father, which he claims is unfortunate because he “always planned on getting divorced.” He tells Jack about this, but not Francis. Jack is clearly still bruised from a failed relationship (he still checks his ex-girlfriend”s voicemail messages – never a good sign), and plans to leavethe trip early. He tells Peter about this, but not Francis. Francis” face is heavily bandaged from an accident, actually a suicide attempt, and he is leading the brothers to a reunion with their mother (Anjelica Huston), who is now a nun in the Himalayas. He hides this information from the others.

These secrets all explode quickly, and the distrust and alienation between the brothers is as pervasive as their reliance on materials and drugs to keep them going. They constantly take strong Indian painkillers, drink alcohol and chain-smoke cigarettes. They seem incapable of handling any situation sober. Meanwhile, their quests in “spiritual” places end up being romps through local marketplaces – they buy shoes, drugs and a poisonous snake before entering the temple to pray for seconds.

Each young man is clearly shaken up by his neglected childhood, and equally shaken by his father”s death. Insisting that “Dad told me I was his favorite,” Peter uses many of the old man”s things (prescription glasses, watch, razor), and is called out quite seriously by Francis. Francis, the eldest, is boorishly bossy (he orders for his brothers at dinner). Jack seeks to avoid his siblings” squabbles by hooking up with an attractive stewardess on the train. Both literally and figuratively, they all carry their father”s baggage (the literal being specially designed, we learn in the credits, by Louis Vuitton), and as a result cannot connect with each other or the world.

However, the film takes a crucial turn when the brothers, kicked off the train and squabbling with each other, see three young Indian boys drowning in a rapidly moving river. All three spring into action, dropping their bags and diving in. Francis and Jack each save a boy, but the current overwhelms Peter, and his boy is killed. The boys” village honors the men and invites them to the dead boy”s funeral, which is deftly juxtaposed with a flashback to their father”s funeral. In the flashback, Peter insists on showing up to the funeral in his father”s Porsche, but it will not start and all three brothers are quite late. At the boy”s funeral, the brothers are respectful of the townspeople, noticeably changed by the death of a child so young. After the service, the boys hire a team of Indians to tote their baggage, and hop on a single motorcycle to go see their mother.

The brothers” journey does not end in reconciliation with their mother, and they are still very much wealthy, spoiled, materialistic and drug-dependant Westerners. One could look at this resolution and ask, “Who cares?” And yet, the brilliance of Anderson”s film is that he makes the brothers” lives poignant despite their obvious vices. They find peace in each other and in the world, and largely stop feeling sorry for themselves. In the film”s concluding scene, the brothers literally drop their baggage in India as they hop on an outgoing train. Their change may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but Anderson shows us that their story and struggle is distinctly real and human, and thus their triumph feels as exhilarating for us as it does for them.