You can't review a movie in a vacuum. In Wes Anderson's idiosyncratic dramedy The Darjeeling Limited, Owen Wilson plays Francis Whitman, a youngish control freak with a badly injured head following a motorcycle mishap that may not have been an accident.
Watching the film, it's impossible to see Wilson's face, practically helmeted with bandages, and not think about the movie star's own recent suicide attempt. Our prior knowledge of the actor shades the way we perceive the role, with the intersection of fact and fiction coming uncomfortably close.
But can you make a movie in a vacuum? The question comes up more and more insistently whenever Anderson releases a new film, most recently The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Critics often use the word "diorama" to describe his meticulous shots and set decorations. Quirky furnishings seem to obsess him as much as absent parents and British pop from the 1960s and '70s, and his ingenious craftsmanship feels increasingly divorced from authentic human experience.
If you'd never seen the films, The Darjeeling Limited would arrive like a refreshing work of comedic abundance and painterly design. In context with Anderson's previous two films, though, it's like he's told the same story three times running, only he set one in a brownstone, one on a boat and the latest on a train. At least this film finds Anderson making a sincere effort to deepen his palette.
You may know that Anderson directed a short companion film to The Darjeeling Limited called "Hotel Chevalier" that's available for free on iTunes. "Hotel Chevalier" was attached to the front of The Darjeeling Limited at film festival and critic's screenings, like the engine hitched to the rest of the train cars. It's not clear whether the choice to separate it was creative or commercial, but given that the short features a Natalie Portman nude scene, it must have been crazy.
If you didn't know that Anderson directed "Hotel Chevalier," you'd figure out in – what, less than a minute? A deadpan young man (Jason Schwartzman) sits with a benumbed expression in a hotel room decorated in shades of yellow so vivid, you can practically see the director holding the swatches. He receives a visit from presumably an old girlfriend (Portman), and their implicit, charged dialogue indicates the strains in their relationship.
If "Hotel Chevalier" sums up the airlessness of Anderson's signature style, the first shots of The Darjeeling Limited crack open a window (and prove that the films should be seen in sequence). From the hotel room's stasis, Anderson switches to edge-of-your-seat motion as a businessman rides a speeding cab through an Indian city's teeming streets. It's an explosion of noise, activity and life. When we see Adrien Brody running for the eponymous train, Anderson switches to slow motion as if to exaggerate The Pianist star's scarecrow frame. With Brody's bent knees and elbows, it's like watching a stick figure sprint.
A first-class sleeper car offers a reunion for the three Whitman brothers – Francis (Wilson), Peter (Brody) and Jack (Schwarztman) – who haven't seen each other since their father's funeral a year ago. Appointing himself the head of the family, Francis gives his brothers typewritten – and laminated – daily itineraries, and insists they treat the trip as a "spiritual journey."
The joke is that the three brothers are about as far removed from spiritual concerns as they can be. They fall back into petty sibling rivalries and argue over whether Peter can borrow Francis' belt while at a sacred tourist attraction. Jack aims to seduce a comely stewardess (Amara Karan). In one of the funniest scenes, they compare the over-the-counter Indian medications they've all purchased for clearly nonmedicinal reasons. Anderson, who co-wrote the script with Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, asserts his flair for cultivating wry, cagey performances and great visual jokes that linger in the memory. At one point, the brothers find themselves put off the train at a middle-of-nowhere depot with a mountain of baggage (a metaphor that becomes too literal by film's end).
But what do Anderson and his writers think of the Whitman brothers as people? We don't know much about them besides their defining quirks. They're implicitly members of the idle rich (their late father was apparently a captain of industry), but they don't seem to do anything in particular. They're mostly the sum of their quirks, like Peter's low-key kleptomania and avoidance of his pregnant wife. Anderson seems less interested in the characters than their costumes, like Jack's plush, yellow Hotel Chevalier bathrobe.
The Whitman brothers' travels run on a parallel track to Anderson's filmmaking style. You can step out of your pampered comfort zone, like Jack's room at the Hotel Chevalier, and go off to a place as exotic and unpredictable as rural India, but you'll still be the same person, with the same strengths and shortcomings. While specializing in stories of arrested development, the director seems like he's having his own issues with growing up. Anderson comes across like a child prodigy with a genius for filling up coloring books with unique shades and hues, but no conception that you can go outside the lines.