In Wes Anderson's latest melan-comedy, The Darjeeling Limited, three brothers on a "spiritual journey" across India have their strict, hour-by-hour itinerary printed out for them each day on laminated paper. Is there a better metaphor for how Anderson's movies work? It wouldn't be surprising to discover that a laminated itinerary—planned to the tiniest detail, protected by hermetic seal—was used for a production call sheet, too, since it speaks to his impeccable artistry and his stubborn resistance to change. He's a creative soul with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and his limits become clearer, slowly but surely, with each film. Anderson relies on compact emotions, communicated in very small moments that tend to resonate with repeat viewers, so it's possible that The Darjeeling Limited only seems minor now and may flower later. And yet its strong similarities to Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, which dealt so movingly with family bonds and fissures, suggest that Darjeeling may be doomed to wilt in its shadow.
Reunited for the first time since their father's funeral a year earlier, estranged brothers Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman board the titular train in the hopes of healing long-festering wounds. Each has a reason for melancholy: Wilson hasn't recovered from a motorcycle accident that's left his head bandaged like a mummy, Brody seems anxious to escape his imminent fatherhood, and Schwartzman hasn't gotten over his relationship with an ex-girlfriend. (Schwartzman's problems are detailed in the fine 13-minute short "Hotel Chevalier," co-starring Natalie Portman, which is available online and will be on the DVD.) The brothers also resent their mother (Anjelica Huston), who failed to show up for their father's funeral. When their original plan goes awry, they resolve instead to seek her out.
The usual pleasures of Anderson's work—the precise framing, eclectic soundtrack, and tiny marvels of production design; the offbeat humor; the well-proportioned, efficiently told story—are all present in The Darjeeling Limited, which creates a gorgeous palette out of local color. The second act includes a detour to an Indian village that's as vibrant and full of feeling as anything Anderson's done. Yet the sum of the brothers' wayward adventure adds up to curiously little in the end, and save for Wilson's moving turn (made all the more heartbreaking by his real-life troubles), the men are fuzzily defined and the film feels incomplete. The devil may be in the details, but for the first time, Anderson's obsession with them has caused him to lose sight of the bigger picture.