The Darjeeling Limited (15)

Dysfunction junction
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The Independent Culture

Like the train from which it takes its title, Wes Anderson's new picture The Darjeeling Limited is outrageously colourful, wonderfully designed and packed with intrigue. It also feels, like that train, maddeningly one-paced, hopelessly muddled in its direction and barely acquainted with any meaningful form of reality. Your inclination to buy a ticket will depend largely on your previous experience of this peculiar film-maker.

The set-up plays true to form: three brothers who haven't spoken to each other since their father's funeral a year ago meet to try to reconnect. As Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson), who's in charge, says to his younger brothers Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman): "I want us to bond with each other." He has also made secret plans for them to visit their mother, who refused to attend her husband's funeral.

The difficulties between parents and children have animated each of Anderson's last three films, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. The notable difference this time is where he has decided to stage it – a trainbound odyssey across India.

Francis has drawn up an itinerary, listing "all the spiritual places and temples we need to see". But it soon becomes clear that Francis is a possessive control freak. At lunch he orders for them all; at prayer in a temple, he says to Peter: "Is that my belt you're wearing?"

Peter has problems of his own, worrying about his marriage and the child his wife is to have in six weeks' time. He has also taken ownership of his late father's spectacles and razor, much to Francis's annoyance. Youngest brother Jack is a writer whose stories are thinly veiled accounts of the Whitman family. You can tell that Schwartzman helped to write the script because he cannily awards Jack (himself) a 10-minute break-up scene with his ex, played by a half-naked Natalie Portman. It is shown here as a separate short, Hotel Chevalier, before the main feature, although it's subtitled "Part 1 of The Darjeeling Limited".

The fractious atmosphere in the Whitmans' compartment keeps threatening to burst into violence. They're all swallowing painkillers, and still keeping secrets from each other ("Don't tell him I told you"). When the train itself goes off on the wrong track, the guard explains to them: "We haven't located us yet" – a succinct appraisal of what's up with the brothers. It's around this point that you realise what's up with the film, too. Anderson may be riding the rails into exotic country, yet the main stops on this journey are ones he's already visited: Kooksville, Whimsy Central, Dysfunction Junction. Horace's line about travel changing only the look of the sky has seldom felt truer.

The distinctive sense of composition is unchanged. The brothers do everything in a row, like The Three Stooges. The camera is obsessed with balance and symmetry; nothing seems more important to this director than posed tableaux. And inside those tableaux, nothing is more important than the alluring paraphernalia of design: bottles of perfume, ticket holders, iPods, and a set of butterscotch-leather luggage that soon sets off the metaphor detector – baggage, get it?

As usual, there is minute attention to clothes; the sunflower-coloured bathrobe, the monogrammed pyjamas, the spiffy loafers, and the jovial contrast of Westerners' neutral-toned suits against the hot ochres and turquoises of India. (Most of the movie was filmed in Rajasthan.) In another life, Anderson might have been one of those Dutch genre painters to whom the details of light, domesticity and clothing were the lifeblood of their art and a way to express the everyday humanity of their subjects.

For Anderson, however, the appurtenances of style are there to amuse himself rather than to uncover an emotional truth. That he has more interest in surface than depth seems, at times, to occur to him. When the brothers are wandering along a riverbank they spot kids playing on a raft: "Look at those assholes," says Francis. Next moment those same kids are involved in a tragic accident, and we may discern a tacit acknowledgment – look how precarious life is.

The mournful mood is sustained as the brothers attend a funeral, and the story flashes back to their father's. Once again, though, feeling is subsumed in a lame bit of business over Peter's insistence on reclaiming their dad's motor from the repair shop. I expected Peter to find something in the glovebox or back seat that would furnish us with a clue about its late owner, but the scene draws a blank. All we know about their father, whose death has triggered the whole journey, is that he owned a scarlet vintage Porsche. Perhaps, for Anderson, that's plenty.

What is inadvertently poignant about the movie is Wilson's appearance. Given the news of the actor's recent travails and alleged suicide attempt, it is affecting that Francis's face and head are striped with bandages, the result of a road accident. When he eventually removes them, one half-expects the gag to be that it's only a few scratches, but the opposite proves true. "Still has some healing to do," says Jack.

Perhaps it is wrongheaded to expect any other kind of unmasking in an Anderson movie. The Darjeeling Limited is at least the work of a distinctive film-maker, and supplies the eccentric pleasures his fans will cherish. But they're of a minor sort, and he didn't have to go all the way to India for them.