Just a few moments into The Darjeeling Limited (2007) and it all made sense to me—at some point someone is going to bundle up all of Wes Anderson’s films into a stylish box set, and the resulting collection is going to be the cinematic equivalent of reading J.D. Salinger’s 9 Stories. For better or worse, it seems pretty clear that like the elusive author, Anderson has settled upon carefully attending to a little universe he has created, one comprised of a very select group of actors playing variations of essentially the same characters in what are essentially variations of the same stories. And just like I happen to like Salinger, I happen to like Anderson’s whimsical little tales for what they are, all the while acknowledging that what I’m witnessing is essentially a limited, extremely insular worldview. But that’s very much the pleasure of it as well.
Salinger’s Franny and Zooey is the text that seems to hover over the Anderson oeuvre, and if from it The Royal Tenenbaums brilliantly took its cues for character, setting and tone, then The Darjeeling Limited gleans from it structure, form and content, with Hotel Chevalier, a brief, impressionistic tale of romantic miscommunication playing Franny to the Zooey-esque spiritual searchings of the feature length Darjeeling Limited. Like Zooey, The Darjeeling Limited is a story of misplaced spiritual yearning, with the desire for an elusive mystical experience covering for a much deeper, more important need: that of emotional healing. The main difference, of course, is that Zooey takes place in a single overstuffed apartment in Manhattan while Anderson packs his characters off to India to come to essentially the same revelations (that is, finally coming to grips with death, the reinforcement of even the most dysfunctional of family units, the acceptance of personal responsibility for one’s life situation, etc.).
If the train trip through India literalizes the spiritual/emotional/psychological journey aspects of the story, it certainly adds a problematic element to the proceedings, despite the fact that Anderson is always quick to point out the shallowness that comes from the infantile nature of his characters. Lamentably unaware of their obliviousness, the brothers Whitman (ah, another literary reference, this time rather tellingly to our archetypal literary narcissist) stumble through rituals of Eastern religion just as they blunder through the Indian countryside, and when that proves to be futile, Western Christianity rears its head via an encounter in an isolated Catholic monastery (though that only serves to reemphasize once again the shortcomings of religiosity).
Unsurprisingly for Anderson’s world, it takes the unexpected presence of death—of an outsider, no less—to finally set the brothers in the right direction, that is, directly back towards home. That the brothers finally seem to be finally moving on by the time the final classic Kinks tracks is cued (perhaps a bit hamfistedly symbolized in the dispersal of elegantly embossed luggage, however beautiful the slo-mo sequence might be), it also shows a step forward for Anderson… yes, the past is still hangs over the head just as it does for all of Anderson’s characters, but at least there seems to be a definite indication that there is movement being made in a forward direction, with the chance of moving on.
Interestingly, even if an Indian adventure proves futile for the brothers, the wide open expanses always lurking outside the diorama-like train compartments seems to give Anderson the space to breath and develop his most fully realized film since The Royal Tenenbaums, still his best film to date. And the introduction of knock-kneed, sad-eyed Adrian Brody into the Anderson universe is nothing less than revelatory (this is likely his best performance since winning his Oscar).
Overall a fantastic film, and I for one eagerly await the next chapter of Anderson’s “story.”