As with just about everything, it's the soul of the thing that matters. Watching Wes Anderson's latest, it's hard not to consider The Darjeeling Limited to be the slightest of his films. At the very least, it's the loosest: With a scant wire frame of a plot, writer/director Anderson and his two co-writers, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, are content to let the plot's details slip into a blurry haze, focusing on the tone and the spirit of the film more than its specifics. Of all Anderson's films—Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou—the moody, witty The Darjeeling Limited is the one that's most about the things happening out of focus in the background or hovering on the edge of the frame.
That wire frame: Three estranged brothers (Adrien Brody, Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson) board a train crawling across India—Wilson's character, in one of his many bursts of enthusiastic vagueness, declares it a "spiritual journey." Things get more complex, yeah, but at its base, there it is: A blue train clanks and chugs across the brown earth, making periodic stops at temples and villages, and onboard and off, our dickish-but-loveable brothers are joined by a contraband cobra and other fantastically quirky plot devices—all of which they wrestle with while they openly admit that they don't trust each other and/or share bottles' and bottles' worth of sketchy Indian drugs. (If anybody knows where to get "Narco-Cough," hook me up.)
One's reaction to the phrase above—"fantastically quirky plot devices"—is as good of a test as any as to whether they'll find The Darjeeling Limited a charming, vivacious tone poem or a redundant bit of too-cute showmanship. Anderson's films have grown increasingly farfetched and precious, and even the change of scenery to a romanticized India doesn't change the fact that Darjeeling is yet another of his stories about children with daddy issues.
On a stronger note, other and less tired Wes Andersonisms—a beautiful soundtrack, breathtakingly gorgeous cinematography, sharp and bittersweet performances—are solidly in place, and while the film occasionally exemplifies Anderson's sometimes annoying tendency of quirkiness for quirkiness' sake, the more constant and important thing is the film's heart. Throughout all of The Darjeeling Limited's rambling, there's a core of earnestness, a sense that these characters and their scant story genuinely matter. And even though we've seen a lot of this before, we can't help but be affected, if only because Anderson himself clearly feels this so deeply.