After an accident that nearly killed him, Frances Whitman (Owen Wilson) has decided that enough is enough, and that he and his brothers are going to take a spiritual journey in India that will allow for bonding and self-discovery. The other brothers, Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) are less enthusiastic, but go along with it anywhere. Their brother did almost die, after all.
They wind up going on a train, the “Darjeeling Limited,” and get into all sorts of trouble and fun. Add into the equation a foreign country and a trio of individuals who are not too fond of each other, and you’ve got what seems like a winning combination. Does it make for a particularly fun watch, however? I’m not so sure it does. This is a meandering film, and while that’s the intent, it can at times be frustrating. Add into the mix a script that’s not particularly funny and “life-changing” revelations that amount to little more than characters simply no longer moping around, and I feel very torn with The Darjeeling Limited.
The tics and quirks are the first things you’ll notice about these characters. Francis is the controlling brother, going so far as to order dinner for his siblings and taking their passports so they can’t leave. Jack is the hopeless romantic, unable to let go of his ex-girlfriend but also incapable of throwing himself at any woman who crosses his path, like a stewardess named Rita (Amara Karan). Peter is just hopeless, seemingly unhappy at every moment in the film.
The Darjeeling Limited is a pleasant film in that it offers a sightseeing tour of all of the most “spiritual” places in India, or at least the ones that characters knew about and could reach from the train. India here is a backdrop, but it is not used in a way that makes it feel like a crutch. When a film takes place outside of America, there can be a temptation to rely too heavily on the foreign land to capture the attention of the audience. This film remains focused on its characters.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about The Darjeeling Limited is not anything seen in the film, but a short film made in 2005 titled Hotel Chevalier, which functions as a prequel to the later release. It was shown prior to the film at festivals, but was absent on its initial theatrical release. Instead, those who wanted to view it had to head to the internet. Hotel Chevalier shows Jack and his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman) in a hotel room for a dozen minutes. In this short period of time, it creates more interesting characters, fascinating dialogue and conflict than the 90 minutes of The Darjeeling Limited.
I recommend seeing Hotel Chevalier, which will not be hard to track down. It makes Jack a more interesting character, and will allow for you to understand a couple of references, and a Portman cameo, that are scattered throughout the feature film. Unfortunately, it might also make you expect more, and with your expectations relatively high, you’re far more likely to be let down. Hotel Chevalier is quite a bit better than The Darjeeling Limited.
However, for all its ambition, The Darjeeling Limited doesn’t really have a whole lot to say, and its characters don’t really do much growing. Part of the problem is that they’re not terribly likable to begin with, but they don’t grow in any way that doesn’t feel artificial. There’s an emotional void in this film; the characters are kept at an arm’s length from the audience. Without much laughter and without good characters, there isn’t much to watch for in this movie.
The plot also doesn’t have clear aims or ambitions, which is fine if you like that sort of thing, but if you’re hoping for a true narrative, you’ll be disappointed or even frustrated. There’s not a great deal driving these characters, and the events of the film happen to them, not because of them. They’re aimless wanderers trying to find their way in life, so this makes sense, but from a storytelling perspective it’s an irritant.
None of this ever stops The Darjeeling Limited from being unwatchable. It’s an easygoing watch, and there’s not much that will really turn you off from watching it. It’s just that there’s nothing really to hold your attention, either. You watch a film like this one, you sit and observe its events, and you don’t have a bad time but you’re also not exactly ecstatic about the experience. It’s a very passive watch, meaning you don’t have to put in a lot of thought, and you’re not going to take a lot from it, but if you want to see some well-shot images of India and some shallow soul-searching, this is as good a film as any to get both of those.
The Darjeeling Limited isn’t a bad film, but it’s also not one that’s worth seeking out, unless you like seeing films set in India. Its characters are lacking, the dialogue isn’t revelatory or funny, and saying that the plot meanders is being generous. It’s a pleasant film, and it’s not going to bore you or make you dislike it, but it’s not something that will enhance your life and it’s difficult to recommend it. Do watch the short prequel, Hotel Chevalier, which can stand alone and is far better in only a tenth of the time.