Wes Anderson is possibly one of the most divisive directors to emerge from the nineties. His 1996 debut, Bottle Rocket, didn't exactly garner the same acclaim as Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, but it didn't turn him into a Troy Duffy either (the ill-fated writer/director of The Boondock Saints who lost favor with Harvey Weinstein and therefore Hollywood as a whole). That being said, the films of Anderson have a tendency to leave audience members either passionate supporters or unimpressed haters. The dichotomy is that it isn’t Anderson himself people get caught up in, it is each film he releases that seems to generate a separate and unique response in spite of the consistently similar plots, characters, and themes of his previous movies. The Darjeeling Limited may have been Anderson's attempt to try something different, but it comes off as a conglomerate of his prior work. Unfortunately this is one case in which the mixture can't be likened to the delightful combination of peanut butter and chocolate, but rather the odious blend of a chocolate covered raisin.
The first noticeable departure from Anderson's prior work is the somewhat self-important short film that serves as a prelude to The Darjeeling Limited. Hotel Chevalier allows a glimpse into the ruinous relationship of Jack Whitman (Jason Schwartzman). The unhealthiness of his relationship with a nameless girlfriend played by Natalie Portman is something we later learn traces back to Jack's feelings of inadequacy bestowed by a father who never read his work and a mother who constantly abandoned all three of her sons for greener pastures.
This is where Anderson never fails to disappoint. There is always some latent pithy undertone in all of the scripts he writes or chooses to direct. Though it may be carefully concealed by the pomp and circumstance of the indie quirkiness he is associated with, it is still there all the same.
In The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson's undisputed masterpiece, it was Gene Hackman as Royal Tenenbaum whose fledgling commitment to his paternal role left each child with a psychological Achilles' heel. In much the same way, The Darjeeling Limited showcases Jack Whitman, Peter Whitman (Adrien Brody), and Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson) as a trio of emotionally wounded brothers incapable of reconciling the unexpected death of their father (run over by a taxi) and the heartless abandonment perpetrated by their mother (Anjelica Huston) afterward.
However complex and multilayered the familial bond (or lack thereof) between these brothers, The Darjeeling Limited fails to imbue its characters with the same relatable insanity of the family presented in The Royal Tenenbaums or even allow the viewer to feel some universally accepted emotion like the endearing jealousy of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) in Rushmore.
Another heavy setback for the film is its stagnant location. Even The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which mostly takes place on Steve Zissou's (Bill Murray) boat, seemed to have more location changes. As a result, the dialogue is at times hyper-aware of itself, as in a scene when Peter and Francis chastise Jack for checking his girlfriend's answering machine. It's almost as if the dialogue is begging, "Please notice how clever I am."
The one overt difference between The Darjeeling Limited and any other Wes Anderson film is that none of its main characters are really distinguishable from each other. Although they are supposed to be opposing personalities, prompting Jack to wonder, "I wonder if we could have been friends in real life. Not as brothers, but as people," they all fulfill one emotionally stunted void that must exist in any Wes Anderson jaunt.
The hopeless reality is that, for the first time since his debut, Anderson has made a film that is only so-so. Mask it behind wordy and seemingly philosophical dialogue, but the truth is, he may have plateaued. His next project, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, an animated adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's novel, may be further proof that Anderson is grappling for new material to stamp with his now famous brand of carefully contrived eccentricity.