Ugh. It's hard for me to even get up the energy to write about this. If two hours of rolling my eyes could be translated into print, that would be the ideal review. The other thing I keep hearing when I think of this film is Hugo Weaving in The Matrix impatiently sneering "MISTER Anderson…"
So I was totally going to skip this one based on the trailers, which made it look like the fourth time Anderson has made this exact same movie [actually I was sure it was his fifth or sixth, if that tells you anything], but then my friend wanted to see it, and then they added the short film at the beginning and I thought it would be pleasant and inoffensive, so I ended up going.
Before the movie started part of the commercials-posing-as-"entertainment" was a full music video by 3 Doors Down about how FUCKIN' AWESOME the National Guard is, presumably aimed at people dumb enough to be persuaded to join the military AND DIE by a music video. The song is called "Citizen Soldiers" and is some performance footage [gritty and desaturated!] but mostly footage of awesome helicopters and handsome multi-ethnic soldiers [Blacks! Hispanics! YOU can die for nothing, too!] and accompanied by the kind of platitudes that apparently motivate idiots, such as "I will never accept defeat." And everyone in the audience, who, seeing as they're here to watch a Wes Anderson film, is probably not the target audience, says to themselves: "Uh, isn't our refusal to accept defeat a LARGE part of the problem? In fact, isn't our very refusal to accept defeat precisely WHY we need to recruit more IED-fodder to ship over to Iraq right now?" Regardless, this short music video was more interesting and provocative than the entire movie to follow.
First we have this short film [billed as "part 1"] called Hotel Chevalier. In it, Jason Schwartzman accepts a visit from ex-GF Natalie Portman, who has sex with him then goes away. We find out that Jack [that's Schwartzman] has been in the hotel a month, left without much of a word, and doesn't know when he'll be back. That's about the end. Toward the end of the movie proper you will recognize some lines from this little short film. Let's say that if you gain any insight from knowing the backstory of those lines, you will have gotten more than me. The short film is flat and pointless, but at least it offers us a chance to gaze further upon the dreamy, dreamy face of Jason Schwartzman. Straight folks can enjoy seeing Natalie Portman's ass.
Then the movie starts. We begin with Bill Murray in a taxi in India. The sight of Murray here made me sigh to myself "Jesus Christ, not AGAIN," but he's only here as a symbolic daddy figure, and vanishes pretty soon. He's running for the train, then we see Adrien Brody as Peter emerging from behind him, and he makes it onto the train. He gets into their compartment where he meets his brothers, Owen Wilson as Francis, with his head all bandaged up. They start having quirky meals and wacky dialogue with the by-now typical goofy guy sitting right next to them or odd German tourists across the way or Indian women who come in and put dots on their foreheads without asking—you know the drill. In here we notice that they've all got a ton of various painkillers, and by that time the helpful "Weighty Metaphorical Significance" [WMS] light in the corner of the screen helpfully starts blinking, while a subtle klaxon sounds.
The WMS light continues flashing as we find out that the distinctive luggage they're all carrying used to belong to their father, who is dead. Peter has appropriated a lot of his father's belongings for himself, including sunglasses that still have his father's prescription. They have all been a-wandering since their father's death [that goes double for their metaphorical wanderings, mon frère], and now Francis wants them to bond on their trip together, accept an imposed itinerary, go forth to all sorts of spiritual places, and "say yes to everything."
A bunch of small stuff happens in here that I have thankfully forgotten already, but I'm sure you can put it all together in your imagination. They visit a bunch of shrines and attempt to go through the motions of religious rituals. Jack never wears shoes through the entire trip. Francis loses one shoe and has to wear a mismatched shoe with an Indian moccasin the rest of the trip—yes! It's THAT quirky! Peter buys a cobra and takes it on the train and when it is found they are told that they are confined to their cabin—and the next thing we see is them out on the town again with no explanation. Somewhere in here we find out that they're on their way to see their mother, who never showed up to dad's funeral, and by this time I was like "Fucking CHRIST! With you just fucking STOP with the side-to-side pans!" I will inform you in advance that he doesn't.
SPOILERS, IF YOU CAN CALL THEM THAT > > >
So they finally get kicked of the train for reals and Francis tells the other brothers that the real purpose of their trip is to go see their Mom, Anjelica Houston, always a welcome presence, who is presiding over some convent. She has written that she doesn't want to see them, but they go anyway. First there's a little accident where Peter and Francis try to save these kids who have fallen in the river, but Peter can't save his, and then they're invited to the funeral, and through all of this Peter learns to value life and not be so wigged out about the child he has on the way back home. Then we have a flashback to the father's funeral, where we see them all freaking out in different ways, and learn that the mother never showed up to the ceremony. Then Francis takes off his bandages and says "I guess I've got more healing to do." The WMS light has been solidly on for the last 10 minutes, by the way.
So they decide to go see Mom anyway, and they all gather in the night and she tells then that Dad's dead, nothing will bring him back, and they all need to get on with it. As they sleep there is a vision of almost everything they've been through in different compartments on the train, including Natalie Portman from the short film, and Bill Murray as the possibly-father. In the morning Mom has gone. They are going to leave the country and go back to their lives, but then they decide not to, and get back on the train. But then they're running for the train, and they're not going to make it so—get this, metaphor fans!—they LEAVE BEHIND THEIR BAGGAGE. That's right, the baggage that belonged to their father! You might not grasp the weighty, WEIGHTY metaphorical significance of all this if you haven't yet graduated from sixth-grade English.
< < < SPOILERS END
Have your gotten the impression that I didn't like it? I didn't hate it, but I was rolling my eyes with increasing frequency, leaving me with quite a vivid picture of my theater ceiling's ventilation system. Aside from all the nauseatingly precious whimsy, the cloying sense that we SHOULD love these characters [if we were better, more accepting people], the sledgehammer-subtle literary devices—and THE FACT THAT WE HAVE SEEN THIS EXACT SAME MOVIE TWICE BEFORE—it really annoyed me that none of the characters treated any of the spiritual shrines and rituals they participated in with any degree of seriousness. They're treated as just amusing things bored rich yuppies do to seem connected to something, but even so are too blasé and superior to really, you know, SERIOUSLY engage in. By the end of their journey, we don't feel any real change in these characters, we only hear them TELL us that they've changed. If I didn't have gazing at Jason Schwartzman's dreamy face to occupy my empty time, I would be far less kind. Even so, this is my last Wes Anderson film.
I think you can safely skip it, but who knows, it may be your thing.