I have two brothers: one is three years my senior, the other is seven years my junior. Coincidentally, this places my brethren and I the same amount of age distance between the three lead actors of Wes Anderson's 2007 film, The Darjeeling Limited. Owen Wilson was born in 1968, Adrien Brody in 1973 and Jason Schwartzman in 1980. The only reason this is relevant is because the film got me thinking about my relationship with my brothers.
I'd like to think that I have a good, solid relationship with Danny and Nicholas (neither of whom seem to prefer going by those names, which is how you can tell I am their brother). I love them both very much and they are the best men in my wedding. I'd also like to think that if one of us were to orchestrate a jaunt through India that it would go a lot more smoothly than the one in Anderson's film. I'm not sure what Anderson's relationship to his siblings is like—he has at least a working relationship with his brother, illustrator Eric Chase Anderson—but if his films are any indication, he may have some stuff to work through.
A year has passed since the death of their father and the brothers Whitman have not spoken to each other since. The oldest, Francis (Wilson), cajoles the other two in joining him on what he refers to as a "spiritual journey" through India, which the other two humor, perhaps due to a lifetime of being bossed around by him: Francis has a tendency to do things like order food on his brothers' behalves. Peter (Brody), the middle child, an apparent kleptomaniac and an expectant father, has as much of a strained relationship with the other two as does Jack (Schwartzman, who co-wrote the film with Anderson and Roman Coppola, his cousin), the youngest and recently wounded by a failed relationship, introduced in the prologue. The three of them clearly have not spent much quality time together in the past, evinced by their constant use of painkillers and tranquilizers to dull the tension each of them feel in the presence of the others.
It turns out that they're truly on their way to see their estranged mother (Anjelica Huston), who couldn't make it to their father's funeral due to the fact that she is a nun somewhere in rural India. Francis has secretly planned to reunite the family all along, an altruistic goal in theory but a toxic one in practice: the Whitman family, to a person, is comprised of the most selfish and self-centered people in the Anderson oeuvre, which is saying something, considering the dispositions of the rest of Anderson's rogue's gallery of characters. I'd be willing to guess that the polarizing reviews that initially met this film were due in major part to the fact that almost none of the characters are likable, even after they ostensibly redeem themselves towards the end of the film with a rather sudden act of selflessness.
So, yes, the character motivations and shaggy plot are not the best, but this is a Wes Anderson film after all, so you know you're going to be met with some seriously detailed production design, extra-cool use of slow motion and incredible compositions. I didn't understand why The Life Aquatic left people cold, but I do get why The Darjeeling Limited does. It is, first and foremost, an exercise in style. The story may hinge on familial dysfunction (then again, what Anderson film doesn't, in some way or another?) but the film is most valuable as an engagement with the beautiful aesthetics inspired by India. One can criticize Anderson for acting only as a tourist in the way he uses India for the mercenary, artists purposes of his film, but the filmmaker never set out to make a movie about India. Most of Anderson's films are about the same thing, after all, just recycled in different contexts and locations. You can choose to be derailed by that. In this, my second viewing after nearly ten years, I choose not to.
As I've mentioned elsewhere, I've come around to Wes Anderson after initially finding him to be a bit of a bore. When one is raised on a diet of exclusively mainstream American cinema, can one expect not to be alienated by Anderson's hyper-specific brand of luxurious ennui? But now I see what all the fuss is about. He is truly one of the greatest American directors alive.