There's a moment during every road trip when, after a few days or a few weeks out in the great wide open, the walls come tumbling down and a traveler gets an unobstructed view of just who his companion truly is. Whether it's a boyfriend or a girlfriend, a brother or a sister, the facade of wisecracks and small talk eventually wears away, and all that's left is an flawed human being.
Wes Anderson's latest film, "The Darjeeling Limited," which makes its North American debut today as the opening night selection of the New York Film Festival before making its way to the general public on Saturday, is the story of three brothers on a train ride through India, who reach this moment of road trip rediscovery, at which point the banter and the superficial back-and-forth give way to an emotional journey far more composed and meaningful than we have come to expect from a filmmaker who's made a career out of goofing in style .
"The Darjeeling Limited" is Mr. Anderson's least funny, yet most substantive film, and one that may be so much of a departure from his previous shtick that it will alienate some of his fan base, much of which will surely be wondering, during a serious second act, where all the chuckles went. Yet it's here, where a comic train trip derails the three brothers (Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson) are kicked off the caboose for violating the train's policies that the director seems to be similarly casting aside the constraints of his comedic oeuvre.
If all of Mr. Anderson's films to this point the whimsical "Bottle Rocket," the quirky "Rushmore," the wacky "Royal Tenenbaums," and the all-out absurd "Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" have exhibited some sense of mugging for the camera, acting above it all with their carefully composed frames and their all-too-cool performances, then "Darjeeling Limited" is the movie that finally allows some genuine earnestness to peer through the pageantry.
The result is a Wes Anderson film that is more drama than comedy, more a coming-of-age tale about rejecting fantasy than an acting-your-age spoof on the rigid nature of reality.
One cannot help but draw parallels between the three men who star at the center of "Darjeeling" and the scores of other Anderson characters who move and act in ways that humans never would. Drawn together by an invitation from Francis (Mr. Wilson), brothers Peter (Mr. Brody) and Jack (Mr. Schwartzman) all board the Darjeeling Limited, determined to find a great family adventure across the India, and all sporting obvious wounds needing to be healed.
Francis, in an uncomfortable parallel to his real-world medical problems, can't hide his scars; his head is wrapped in gauze after a brutal road accident. Jack incessantly calls in to check his girlfriend's answering machine for which he has the security code while Peter keeps to himself, only later revealing that he is having a hard time getting along with his wife, who is a month from delivering their first child.
As this ho-hum comedy chugs along, the brothers fall into their assigned familial roles. Jack is distant and repeatedly threatens to leave. Peter serves as a mediator between his introverted and extroverted brothers, who bicker incessantly. And Francis resumes his role as caretaker and organizer, using his assistant to print up daily laminated travel schedules, stealing Jack's passport to prevent him from fleeing, and concealing the secret purpose behind this family rendezvous: a surprise visit to their mother (Angelica Huston), who, prior to their father's funeral, left America in the midst of a mental breakdown.
In previous Anderson comedies, such a twist a father's death and a family's inability to mourn the loss would have been a mere plot device, much like Luke Wilson's suicide scene in "The Royal Tenenbaums." But in "Darjeeling," this rarely acknowledged passing slowly emerges as the definitive, sublimated agony dictating every action of these dysfunctional siblings.
Early in their adventure, the days progress with a familiar feel of comic aloofness. They are ambivalent and arrogant, and each is helplessly confined by his own foibles. When they infuriate the train management by purchasing a king cobra, they are unceremoniously booted from the train and stranded in the middle of nowhere. As their ride disappears over the horizon, the film's gimmick is suddenly gone, and the movie's second act becomes something more sincere, smart, and satisfying. When the bubble wrapped about this trio's universe is punctured, reality comes flooding in and their comic, too-cool posturing gives way to real emotions. Looking back over his résumé, much the same could be said of the director.
For this is what's been missing from Mr. Anderson's world, the sense of emotional growth beyond the ruffling of Bill Murray's brow or the wryest of Gene Hackman's smiles. By the end of "Darjeeling," even Mr. Anderson's rigorously composed frames and 90-degree pans take on deeper meanings, linking the family's Indian voyage to that stateside family funeral, and capturing the unlikely friendship that blossoms between the brothers and the villagers they meet.
"The Darjeeling Limited" is Mr. Anderson's most heartfelt film, a warped ride that begins with the familiarly eccentric and ends in a warm embrace for characters who have been roused from their waking comas and moved beyond their odd habits. Now that he's freed from his own tendencies, it is again exciting to ponder where Mr. Anderson will travel next.