Hollywood eats its own, and the media kingmakers having anointed auteur Wes Anderson as the King of Cool after three films gleefully sharpened their daggers and busily set about to carving up the legend they'd created upon the release 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. His follow-up, an adventure into the far-off land of India and through the tangles of the heart, doesn't deliver Anderson to the long-promised land of cinema nirvana, but finds him moving toward maturity. The problem is that the multitude of quirks that made his Bottle Rocket (1996) such a revelation, have, five films later, metastasized into an all-too-easy parody of themselves; the deadpan lunacy, the perfect '60s pop, the daddy issues, the elaborately fussy set design and the abuse of slow motion as a stand in for meaning. Detractors will find him guilty of all those sins, but fans, and newcomers, will find pleasure aboard the Darjeeling Limited.
But the hippest dude in the room is an unrepentant sentimentalist who's up to his old tricks here, placing his bottled-up characters inside ornate little dollhouses, boxes within boxes, and pretty much leaving them to find an exit on their own. He's once again caught up in the delicate intricacies of family politics, where every heirloom gets fetishized beyond reason, and no one can communicate because they're so far up their own asses. This intimate bubble extends to Anderson's artistic family, co-writers Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola (who are themselves cousins) and pal Owen Wilson.
This time, the focus is on a trio of estranged brothers, Francis (Wilson) Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Schwartzman), who decide to reconnect on a cross-country train ride through India. That these kooky sibs would seek clarity in such a chaotic, overwhelming place speaks volumes about them even when the screenplay leaves much unsaid. (Their stormy relationship gets fleshed out in a short film that's available online, which in some ways is better than the feature film not just because of Natalie Portman's naked backside but because it's too short to ramble on and on.)
The trio's father headed some undisclosed industry, which Francis (the oldest) is struggling to run in dad's image. Peter is dealing with looming fatherhood himself, and wears pop's oversize sunglasses, as if they'll grant him some special foresight. Schwartzman's Jack is like the fantasy adult that Rushmore's Max Fisher dreamed of a dashing, George Harrison-mustachioed, jet-setting author caught in a romantic death spiral with a beautiful femme fatale.
Yes, the main event meanders a bit, and the boys make like a clueless crew of pomo Marx Brothers, engaging in slapstick squabbles and causing havoc (see the cobra loose in the train's sleeper section). They stumble around as ugly Americans, seduced by the gorgeous landscapes, by "sweet lime and savory snacks," by the temples, incense burners and flower garlands and all the exotic brown people, who aren't as amused as they are. Only when they step outside, away from the train's calming blue wallpaper corridors and into the sensory overload of the streets, where immaculate lives get messy, does the movie really roll. Here Anderson, like his heroes, learns the real adventure is in getting deliriously lost.