Wes Anderson's films have always been about the damage done by internalizing intense, unrequited longing. It's different longings -- the longing for a return to the simplicity of childhood (Bottle Rocket); of a boy for a woman (Rushmore); of a man for his (adopted) sister (The Royal Tenenbaums); of a child for a father he can admire (Rushmore); a child for any father at all (The Life Aquatic) -- but it's always longing.
The tone with which his films treat that hunger, though, has been slowly shifting from a kind of sad naivet & eacute; to bitter disillusionment. The pace of that shift picks up considerably here. Where Bottle Rocket (Anderson's first film) had flecks of pathos and The Life Aquatic (his most recent) was ridden with it, The Darjeeling Limited is so run-through -- so full up -- that the light of mirth and reconciliation is all but blacked out.
A year after their father's death, Jack and his brothers Francis (Owen Wilson) and Peter (Adrian Brody, in the film's best performance) meet in India for a spiritual journey of reconciliation. Francis, who brought the trio together, reiterates his desire for the brothers to become friends again -- while constantly doing inconsiderate things to them. There's almost no backstory (another innovation for Anderson) and little else than bile in the way the brothers treat each other. It's unclear, then, if the men ever liked each other in the first place. They seem, for most of the film, to fight to make it work for no other reason than some queer sense of duty.
Though they become increasingly flawed throughout his films, you can tell that Anderson bears a certain fondness for his past characters. For Jack, Peter and Francis, (whom he co-created with Schwartzman and Roman Coppolla), though, he seems to have mostly spite. Where previous characters' eccentricities (Margot Tenenbaum's wooden finger, Max Fisher's elaborate high school plays) were made endearing and somewhat noble, the brothers' affectations are treated with contempt.
Anderson does find beauty and solace in the people of India, and in the fantastically opulent luggage set that serves as an emotional stand-in for the brothers' dead father. His camera has always had a love for set pieces and objects. Here it becomes fetishistic to the point that the film is crippled. There's a serious problem of perspective when the duffel bags, steamer trunks and suitcases the three brothers carry are given places of prominence in the credits ("Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton") above some members of the cast.
The Darjeeling Limited is not only Anderson's least humorous film, it's also his least humane. Insofar as that meta-narrative (less funny, less kind) has been playing itself out across his recent films, it seems fine to conclude that Anderson thinks you can't have one without the other. That's a tragically sad outlook, but, in a way, it explains a lot. (Rated R)