Few directors can be recognised from a single frame, but Wes Anderson, famous for his obsession with costumes and vivid, eye-aching colour, is unmistakable. The palette of choice for The Darjeeling Limited is yellow the yellow of spices, of deserts, of flowers and of yellow-painted hotel rooms with yellow towels and bathrobes. Everything in the film is somewhere on a spectrum from tangerine to ochre. So consistently so that when, at the very end, the palette shifts to red, it carries all the shock of a last-reel twist.
The story of the Darjeeling Limited continues Andersons interest in the curious nature of families. Francis (Owen Wilson), Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and Peter (Adrien Brody) are three brothers whose lives are lived in permanent rehab after the death of their father. Attempting to find themselves anew they embark on a spiritual journey aboard an Indian train (run by the Darjeeling Limited of the title), with the aim of locating their errant mother, holed up somewhere in a convent.
Francis is a control-freak whose face has been mangled in a car-crash; Jack a failed writer who writes nothing but autobiography; and Peter is so darkened by the paternal shadow that he wears Papa Whitmans old clothes and sunglasses. When theyre thrown off the train for bringing aboard a poisonous snake, the three must band together or be torn asunder.
Visually, its a masterpiece: a detailed painting on a broad canvas, whose every frame drips vibrancy, bustle, smell and dry heat; powerfully evoking if not the reality of such a large and diverse country as India then certainly the experience of the Western traveller, bombarded on all sides by sights, textures and sensations. Filming largely on location, with a local crew, Anderson has nevertheless managed to stamp his style on every shot. The camera slides, rises, falls and turns without ever missing its mark, its movements as slick and purposeful as a dancer. Despite large sections of screen time in the narrow confines of a railway carriage, Anderson still uses the space as freely as he does the desert.
The script written by Anderson and Schwartzman is witty, walking the fine line between canny observation and cartoonish absurdism that made The Royal Tenebaums so successful. But, like Whitman brothers lives (and somewhat ironically) it all lacks direction. At 100-odd minutes it feels overlong. So much is understated that very little is ever said. The characters rarely surface above their cacophony of quirks.
Its certainly got more pace than The Life Aquatic, and long-time collaborator Wilson provides a better centre than Bill Murray did. But the spiritual journey at the heart of the film lacks spirit, and without that the rest seems like so much window-dressing. When significant moments arise, theyre disappointingly shallow: baggage as a metaphor for, well, baggage? Its certainly not enough to end the film. And elements such as Jacks instant fling with a train hostess simply feel fake.
But perhaps the biggest flaw here is that its simply not as funny as Andersons previous work. Buying into these bizarre characters and scenarios is too much like hard work. Coupled with the insistent micromanagement of every frame, and the effect is rather like looking at an exquisite portrait, the kind in which you stare deep into the subjects eyes: imagining but never finding connection.