boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
Movie Review

Throw brother from the train

Cartoony 'Darjeeling' gets sidetracked into real life

For a while, the most compelling thing about Wes Anderson’s latest diorama, ‘‘The Darjeeling Limited,’’ is the genius of the central casting. Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman play brothers, the Whitmans. And if the genes uniting them seem less than believable, you have to admire that someone thought it’d be cool to assemble three of %the movies’ most fascinating noses for a %90-minute romp. (The idea gets funnier when it occurs to you Anjelica Huston is %the mother.)

Most of ‘‘The Darjeeling Limited’’ is set aboard an eponymous Indian train, where Peter and Jack (Brody and Schwartzman) discover they’ve been lured into a fraternal reunion under false pretenses by Francis (Wilson), their older brother. They haven’t seen one another since their father’s funeral in New York a year ago, and since Francis almost died in a motorcycle accident himself (his face is bruised, his head bandaged), he’s been feeling sentimental and wants to heal his broken family. The bickering and fisticuffs that follow as the train moseys down x the tracks are recognizable as vaguely human.

But, really, we’re meant to appreciate the utter loveliness of Anderson’s designer cartoon — how, for instance, Adrien Brody might be part man, part TV antenna; or how dreamy the soundtrack music from Satyajit Ray’s movies is. The brothers carry their father’s set of butterscotch valises, which have been painted with little animals — they’re like a Louis Vuitton kid-safari collection.

Courtesy of the unceasingly inspired costume designer Milena Canonero, the Darjeeling’s train steward (Waris Ahluwalia) and his comely number two, Rita (Amara Karan), wear an assortment of uniforms in degrees of aqua, blue, and green, which together can seem yellow. Naturally, they match the wallpaper in all of the train’s imaginatively conceived cars. One sequence of revolving train-car tableaux recreating what’s on the minds of the brothers and their mother is like looking through a living View-Master.

Once you stop wondering how you might get your hands on a turban like the steward’s, you have to face the hard fact that Anderson has made a movie that could very much double as a catalog, just like his hipster salute, ‘‘The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.’’ The preciousness of this new enterprise, like that of the previous one, pollutes the human relationships until everything seems like a pose.

Anderson wrote ‘‘The Darjeeling Limited’’ with Schwartzman and his cousin, Roman Coppola, a director himself and the son of Francis. Allegedly, the Whitmans are a tribute to him, Peter Bogdanovich, and Jack Nicholson, all of whom worked under Roger Corman in the 1960s. But the brothers’ emotional immaturity is a joke that’s never funny. When Jack, who’s been trysting with Rita, sees her wet face one night, he asks, ‘‘Did you get maced?’’ ‘‘No,’’ she says, ‘‘I’m crying.’’ (Anderson shot a complementary short called ‘‘Hotel Chevalier,’’ starring Schwartzman as Jack and Natalie Portman as a girlfriend who stalks him in his Paris hotel room. It’s delicious-looking, but the sex doesn’t seem like a put-on, and the sharp breakup talk between them seems truer than the cartoon patter of most of what’s said in the feature.)

Anderson is 38, and the older he gets the further he retreats from the human resonances of a movie like ‘‘The Royal Tenenbaums,’’ a film about the familial swamps of depression and the necessary fight to be happy. That movie was not without its problems — Anderson seemed to be too in love with his characters to sacrifice them, but I thought he seemed ready to leave the hothouse he built with that film, to introduce his world to ours. Instead, Anderson recedes into his own Neverland. He goes all the way to India and spends half of the movie playing inside his dollhouse of a train.

Just as you begin to consider how a man of Anderson’s visual sophistication can continue to wade in the psychological and emotional kiddie pool, something amazing happens. The diorama tips over, and the movie spills into life as it is actually lived — and concluded. Suddenly, we are thrust in between two funerals. One, for the Whitmans’ father, might as well be imaginary (we never attend it). The other is for a son, and it feels momentously real.

The Whitmans detrain (they’re evicted, actually) and hole up in a colorful, grief-stricken desert village. And Anderson, in a kind of empathetic breakthrough, drops his Richard Lester-Francois Truffaut impersonation to show anguish and pain. The post-facto news of Owen Wilson’s recent personal torments only deepens the picture’s sudden soul.

‘‘The Darjeeling Limited’’ is as much a coloring book as Anderson’s other movies are. But for several scenes the colors escape. This passage inspires a well of feeling not for the cotton-candy clouds and construction-paper sun that hover above so much of this movie but for the wailing and mournful flesh-and-blood men and women living beneath them. Anderson doesn’t bother trying to forge any cultural understanding. At worst, he’s just testing out an homage to a welcome new forefather in Ray. At one point, Rita tells Jack she has got to get off the Darjeeling. She’s speaking out of fatigue. But her wish works as film criticism, too. Only tourists live on trains.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

More from Boston.com

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES