Peter (Adrien Brody) is married, and his wife Alice (Camilla Rutherford) is expecting their first child in only six weeks. Because he feels unready and unworthy to be a father, Peter has departed the U.S. without alerting his wife and is contemplating divorce, even though he still loves Alice very much. Jack (Jason Schwartzman, who collaborated with Anderson and Roman Coppola on the screenplay) is a successful writer whose girlfriend has broken up with him. Throughout the trip he makes long-distance calls to her answering machine, whose monitoring code he's pilfered, in hopes of identifying the rival for whom she dumped him.
In short, each of the brothers has a different reason for making this trip. Peter and Jack are clearly just running away from separate miseries at home. But Francis hopes for a 'spiritual journey" that will bring the brothers closer together the way he remembers their being when they were younger. To that end, he's booked them a first class sleeping compartment aboard a train that winds through rural India with no apparent departure point and no definitive destination on its schedule. Onto this meandering railroad trip Francis has tried to affix a ridiculous spiritual tourists' itinerary that will enable the brothers to visit a series of India's holiest shrines, at least one every time the train stops. Pointedly, though they are supposed to find an ancient place to pray, they more often get distracted by the opportunity to purchase exotic Indian goods, including a cobra. And most anytime they are supposed to wax spiritual, each reaches for a little chemical assistance. Francis has a dropper of pain medicine. Peter has scored illicit pills. Jack just chug-a-lugs cough syrup.
In a parody of the typical hyperkinetic American vacation, Anderson has Francis employ an assistant, Brendan (Wallace Wolodarsky), whom he outfits with a laptop, a portable printer and a laminating machine. Brendan's job is to find spiritually stimulating places for the boys to visit, type up a daily time table on wallet-sized cards and laminate them for protection. Evidently Anderson decided that the idea of the laminated cards exhausted its comedic value in the set-up, so he jettisons it quickly after execution by having Brendan quit.
The decision to dump Brendan is typical of Anderson, who obviously feels that follow-through isn't necessary. The boys finally do manage to visit their mother, but the encounter isn't really the climax we would get were these events in the hands of a different storyteller. For all that happens here, Anderson has established his wonderfully quirky train as his central metaphor. This tale, and thus we can assume Anderson's view of life, is not about arriving. It's about the events of the journey. In support of this central conceit, Anderson adds the striking images of the brother's inappropriate luggage, eight matching bags inherited from their father. We aren't really apprised of the many details, but we get the point that the three men are carrying a lot of baggage out of their past, and until they get rid of that baggage they won't make the maturational progress they need.
Some viewers will find such material heavy-handed, and others will find the story too unstructured and uncompleted. But for those, like me, who enjoy Anderson's cockeyed view of the world, The Darjeeling Limited will seem like an eccentric friend with gloriously vivid stories to tell, the truth of which is utterly beside the point.