The dumb rap against the gifted Wes Anderson is that his comedies (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic) all hit on similar themes of broken dreams and shattered families. Damn him. And damn Hitchcock for his obsession with suspense. And what's with Scorsese and violence? My point is, an artist can spend a satisfying lifetime developing personal themes and deepening their resonance. Sure, they can trip up (see The Life Aquatic). But the Texas-born Anderson, 38, has managed to absorb a vast number of influences, from J.D. Salinger to Francois Truffaut, and forge a style all his own.
The magically compelling Darjeeling Limited strikes me as the fullest blossoming yet of Anderson's talents as a total filmmaker. To render the fable of the three estranged Whitman brothers on a spiritual journey to India, Anderson — himself the middle child of three brothers — paints on a broad canvas. But his storybook brush strokes are unmistakable. Francis (Owen Wilson), the eldest, has bullied his brothers into a train trip on the Darjeeling Limited as a bonding adventure. The boys haven't spoken since their dad died in a Manhattan car crash a year ago. (Anderson regular Bill Murray hauntingly evokes the paternal spirit in a mute cameo.) Middle brother Peter (Adrien Brody) annoys Francis by claiming he was Dad's favorite. Young Jack (Jason Schwartzman) is smarting over his ex-love, but he's not above sampling the sweet lime of a hot train attendant (Amara Karan).
It's a setup for knockabout farce, as these privileged, narcotized boys drag their cumbersome Louis Vuitton luggage from stop to stop, oblivious to the wonders of the Rajasthan landscape vividly captured by cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman. But this is an Anderson film, meaning telling details have to be caught on the fly. Catch Peter's wince when he reveals he's about to become a father. Or Jack's desperation when he hacks into his ex's voicemails. Or Francis' head bandages, remnants of his attempt to off himself on his motorcycle. It's impossible not to draw parallels to the recent suicide attempt by Wilson, who collaborated with college-buddy Anderson on the scripts of his first three movies. Wilson had no hand in the Darjeeling script; it's the work of Anderson and their mutual friends Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, but you can't miss the undercurrent of melancholy and pain. I'm not saying that the Marx brothers turn into the Karamazovs. Anderson's touch is too nuanced for that. Powered by evocative cuts from the Kinks, the film uncovers layers of emotion as the brothers confront the mother (a dynamite Anjelica Huston) who abandoned them to become a nun in a Himalayan convent.
All the acting is exemplary. Brody, new to Wes' World, is revelatory as Peter. An intimate encounter with tragedy in a local village leaves him dumbstruck. And that moment of silent reflection about a world outside his own shifts this whirl of a movie into still waters. Wilson skillfully blends humor and heartbreak. And Schwartzman, the iconic Max Fischer in Rushmore, cuts to the bone as Jack wonders if the Whitmans would have been friends if they weren't brothers. Another key to Jack's character can be found in Hotel Chevalier, a thirteen-minute short (inexplicably available only online) that shows Jack and his girlfriend (a harsh, never-hotter Natalie Portman) shacked up in Paris. Like Anderson, Jack is a die-hard Francophile. He listens repeatedly to a Peter Sarstedt song about a lover who asks, "Tell me the thoughts that surround you/I want to look inside your head." Anderson struggles hypnotically with the same impossible goal. In a final train shot of surpassing beauty and sadness, characters hurtle down the same track but in separate cars, still alone inside their heads.