Estranged brothers Francis (Wilson), Jack (Schwartzman) and Peter (Brody) reunite aboard an Indian train. What is conceived as a spiritual quest goes way wrong due to confrontations, misadventures and too much baggage.
Three stooges antics mingle with subtler silliness, painful life-wisdom, bittersweet vicissitude and his trademark whimsy in this unmistakable Wes Anderson special.
Anderson again explores the sad peculiarity of a dysfunctional family, in what could be viewed as a companion-piece to The Royal Tenenbaums. But he enters new territory by removing the quirky siblings to colourful Rajasthan, where heady exoticism and atmospheric alien culture (plus the local, opium-rich cough mixture) all have their effect on the damaged Whitman brothers and their tragi-comic personal journeys.
Francis (Owen Wilson) has organised this odyssey a year after the brothers buried their father, their mother (Anjelica Huston) went AWOL and they parted acrimoniously, each with a share of dad’s luxurious luggage. Francis has planned every detail, with a bullied PA who lurks in the corridors and is ordered to keep his distance. Middle brother Peter (Adrien Brody) is about to become a father and is anxiously pondering why he married. Youngest brother Jack (Jason Schwartzman) is a writer mourning a recent break-up and furiously denying that his fiction is an ill-disguised chronicle of their lives.
Despite all Francis’ efforts to control the other two, his plans go awry when they stray from temple visits into a string of disasters. When the train itself goes off on the wrong track and a railway man explains, “We haven’t located us yet,” he’s speaking to the Whitman condition. Even more blatantly symbolic is the motif of the Whitmans’ luggage, to which the brothers cling jealously, along with their resentments, throughout. But it is handled wittily as a centrepiece in the delightful storybook production design, itself set off beautifully against vibrant locations.
Owen Wilson, without whom Anderson has never made a film, plays the eldest brother and self-appointed patriarch with
a haunted insecurity behind his confident humour. Wilson’s Francis has recently had a near-fatal accident, so for most of the film his face is bashed up, his remarkable nose hidden under a bandage. Given awareness of Wilson’s recent troubles, the dismaying state of his Francis enhances the poignancy of the brothers’ predicaments beyond what was foreseen and scripted, though Brody and Schwartzman more than hold their own as his rivals in grief and slapstick.
Like Francis, Anderson micro-manages everything, down to the characters’ footwear. By surrendering to his love of trains and train movies he put himself into a filming situation (aboard a real, moving train) that found impromptu, ingenious elements and a feel of things being made up as they went along. This can feel maddeningly farcical and chaotic at times, but the performances and the sense of a genuine experience are ultimately and imaginatively moving.
As an extra treat, the film is preceded by a short in which Schwartzman’s heartbroken Jack is holed up in a Paris hotel when his ex-lover (Natalie Portman) turns up. It’s a more apt prologue than it initially appears, the incident paying off dividends aboard The Darjeeling Express. Watch for a stunning last shot that goes straight to the heart.
Funny peculiar and funny ha ha, with a spontaneity and energy that gather up a powerful emotional head of steam as it chugs along.