The comic-drama "The Darjeeling Limited" begins with a scene destined to go down, justifiably, as one of the best openings in movie history. Bill Murray, as a nameless businessman, races through the crowded streets of an Indian city in the back of a tiny, luxuriously upholstered taxi. Buster Keaton would have enjoyed the near misses of pedestrians and the jostling of the passenger as the cabby confidently but dangerously races to get him to the train station on time. He's late and has to run to try to catch his train as it pulls away. The fact that he won't make it, onto the train or into the rest of the movie, is shown in slow motion as Adrien Brody, younger of heart and longer of limb, strides by, leaps onto the caboose, and looks back as Murray, deflated, gives up in anguish.
If only Murray had made it. What follows is an hour and a half of meandering scenery and plot concerning three brothers trying to reconnect during a spiritual journey through India. The deepest utterance, however, is that the country "smells kind of spicy." Such lines smell kind of funny, but also ordinary and expected next to the exotic scenery, which has, of course, been heightened by their maker's love of whimsy. Whimsy is the signature element in a movie by Anderson, who used it to quickly become a rare household-name director. His movies are like terrariums of his imagination the fantasy prep school of "Rushmore"; the modern-day Addams family of "The Royal Tenenbaums"; the Jacques Cousteau-turned-Jacques Tati outfit in "The Life Aquatic" worlds that resemble our own but abide by their own physics.
In "Darjeeling," Anderson's signature styles have hardened into stale chapati. Brody's Peter is on the fictional Darjeeling Limited to meet his two brothers, the younger Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and the older Francis (Owen Wilson). We learn gradually through their conversation that Francis has organized the trip to reunite the estranged siblings, who have not spoken since their father's death a year ago. At the end of their journey awaits mom (Anjelica Huston), who has retreated to a nunnery in the Himalayas and may not be so psyched to see her boys.
It's no wonder, since the three behave like overgrown children, which we are supposed to find endlessly amusing. Jack smokes all the time and sleeps with a pliable stewardess (Amara Karan). Peter gets everyone in trouble by bringing a live cobra aboard, which not so surprisingly escapes. Francis annoys everyone by being a control freak. He orders lunch and dinner for his brothers and has planned the trip down to daily itinerary cards printed and laminated by his assistant (Wallace Wolodarsky), who's hooked up to laptops and faxes in a car just down the hall. It's just that cute.
This is all intended to charm our turbans off, yet it doesn't for exactly that reason. Filled with an obligatory list of deep cuts from the Kinks and Stones, "Darjeeling" seems less like an unabashed expression of imagination than a series of calculated attempts to give us that Wes Anderson style. At one point the train comes to a sudden halt. Everyone exits, wondering what's going on. "The train's lost," someone confirms. "How does a train get lost?" one of the brothers asks. "It's on rails." You get the feeling Anderson enlisted as co-writers not Roman Coppola and Schwartzman, but the clunky jokesmiths behind "Saved by the Bell." If anything's off course, it's this movie.
Compounding that mystical feeling is Anderson's clumsy attempt a staple to add a touch of poignancy to the proceedings. The brothers get caught up in a rescue attempt shortly after they are kicked off the train. There's a death, and a long sequence where we witness Indian rituals of cleansing and burial. An admirable portrayal of grief by the actor Irfan Khan demands we take this seriously regardless of the spirited mirth that comes before and after. But Anderson fumbles the moment, sending the brothers toward their meeting with epiphany by way of a nerve-rackingly slow motion march to the funeral pyre.
The end credits, as tranquil and meaningless as what preceded, leave the viewer with far too much time to contemplate what this movie might have been trying to say. The only thing credible is that India, through thousands of years of world religions, Sufis and maharajas, was only waiting for Jason Schwartzman to arrive and make it cool. (R) 91 min. S