India has long been a magnet for Westerners seeking enlightenment, both lasting and of the trendy, quick-fix variety, but few would-be spiritual seekers cart as much emotional baggage as the estranged Whitman brothers riding The Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson's mostly delightful seriocomic ensemble film. Whimsical yet suffused with melancholyone of Anderson's signature motifsthis bittersweet depiction of the squabbling brothers' rail odyssey across India suffers an acute case of narrative sprawl in the third act. Yet there's so much that's captivating about The Darjeeling Limited, from the natural rapport of stars Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson, to Robert Yeoman's ravishing cinematography, that you're more than willing to overlook its flaws and climb aboard The Darjeeling Limited.
Anderson and co-screenwriters Roman Coppola (CQ) and Schwartzman reportedly drew upon their own experiences traveling by train across India in scripting The Darjeeling Limited. One year after their father's death, anxiety-ridden expectant father Peter Whitman (Brody) and his novelist younger brother Jack (Schwartzman) begrudgingly join their older brother Francis (Wilson) in India, ostensibly to reconcile on a "spiritual quest." Heavily bandaged and medicated following a near-fatal motorcycle accident, Francis is determined to heal old wounds with his siblings, but for all his talk of spirituality and transcendence, he remains very much the controlling, micro-managing older brother. There's not one moment in their itinerary that Francis hasn't planned, with the help of Brendan (Wally Wolodarsky), his beleaguered assistant stashed in another compartment aboard The Darjeeling Limited.
Meanwhile, in between bickering sessions with Francis and Jack, Peter is trying to come to grips with his impending fatherhood. As for Jack, the perpetually barefoot youngest Whitman can't stop obsessing over his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman, who appears in the short film prologue Hotel Chevalier, which won't accompany The Darjeeling Limited into theaters). Not surprisingly, those life-changing epiphanies Francis keeps drawling about are few and far between for the embattled Whitmans, until they're confronted by tragedy after getting kicked off the train.
It is here, during the abrupt narrative detour into dramatic terrain, that The Darjeeling Limited begins to lose its way. You understand the filmmakers' motivations for this sequencethe brothers stumble upon grace only after they stop looking for it in all the wrong placesbut it's introduced clumsily, without Anderson's customary understatement or dry wit. There's an earnest, on-the-nose feel to these scenes that threatens to bring the film to a screeching halt. Although The Darjeeling Limited regains some of its sprightly comic momentum, it begins to feel somewhat repetitious, the closer the brothers get to their ultimate destination: the Himalayan convent their runaway mother (Angelica Huston) calls home. Anderson regular Huston (The Royal Tenenbaums) is fine in her glorified cameo, yet her character serves such an incidental purpose that nothing of import would be lost if you cut her out of the story entirely.
Although The Darjeeling Limited pales in comparison to Anderson's best film, Rushmore (1998), it's still a vast improvement over the director's last and worst film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004).