Generally I find Wes Anderson’s movies to be in a slightly frustrating no man’s land between comedy and drama. His humor is so dry that while there are occasional parts where I’ll laugh I definitely laugh less than I would at a movie that had more jokey-jokes, and the characters are too broadly drawn for me to really empathize with them when they hit bottom. But I think that no mans land feeling is actually what makes Darjeeling Limited bearable.
If this movie was a traditional drama, it would be terrible. It is stock full of obvious symbolism – these guys with too much baggage are literally carrying multiple suitcases; when they meet their long lost mother the soundtrack has Mick Jagger singing “you’re playing with fire”; they go to one of the most holy sites in India but ignore it so they can go shopping for power adapters; etc. – but the heavy-handedness of the symbolism doesn’t grate in the way it would if this were a traditional spiritual awakening movie. I don’t think that Anderson is trying to satirize that type of movie, but the obvious goofiness of these character’s choices kind of makes it feel like he is. And thank god for that; those movies are terrible.
On the other hand, if this movie was a straight comedy it would feel like it was leaving a bunch of good material on the table. There’s a scene where all three of the brothers who are on their spiritual quest are feeling a lot of self pity when they happen to see something terrible happen to an Indian family. They suddenly get a priority reset, because it’s now obvious that their burdens are easier to bear than the burdens that a lot of people have to bear. It’s a nice moment where they realize their privilege, and acknowledging that goes a long way towards grounding the movie. Otherwise this rich-white-find-themselves-in-India movie could have been too patronizing.
I can imagine an alternate universe where the absurdity is dialed up one more notch, making this laugh out funny instead of chuckle funny, or an alternate universe where the lurking melancholy is rendered more acutely and you feel their grief yourself, but I must give it credit for managing to tackle both tones without averaging them out to a mush. This is definitely one of Anderson’s better outings.