Anyone who is paying attention knows what to expect from a Wes Anderson film: quirky, hyperstylised characters speaking quirky, hyperstylised dialogue as the move on straight lines through aggressively precise compositions filled with highly detailed and deliberately artificial set design, variations of the Futura sans serif font plastered on every surface that a font can be plastered on.

The odd thing about such heavy formalism as Anderson favors is that for a while, it wasn't terribly bothersome or heavy. That changed with the director's fourth feature The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, in which he seemed to have lost whatever restraining force it was that kept his earlier films from tipping into over-preciousness and oppressive whimsy. The delicacy of his frames, the precision of his color palette and the fussiness of his mise en scène, particularly that damn boat set, more or less overwhelmed the dramatic core of the the film (which was already the flimsiest of the four screenplays he had co-written).

That was three years ago, and Anderson's latest is, if flawed (and which of his films is not?), at least flawed in generally small ways, and altogether less fussy and strangled than its predecessor. And following up on its prologue, the short film Hotel Chevalier, it seems that The Darjeeling Limited represents a few very tentative steps towards adult themes and issues, and away from the rigidity of his stylistic prison.

In light of the clear and natural the progression from Rushmore to The Royal Tenenbaums to The Life Aquatic, I think it's too easy to forget that the first and third of those films are almost nothing like each other. Anderson's 1998 breakthrough, while conspicuously formal by the standards of the day, is mostly devoid of the neurotic obsession with set design that afflicted its descendants, and while exquisitely composed, the look of the thing is much more shaggy and loose - like all his work, it steals from the New Wave, but the good playful parts, and not the twee, overdetermined parts. The Darjeeling Limited isn't that loose, nor as playful, but it feels a great deal airier than Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic, despite almost half of the movie taking place exclusively in a precious blue-and-yellow train that is a copiously designed as anything on that boat.

The difference from there to here, I think, is India. This is basically a travelogue, about three brothers looking for meaning in their lives, and like so many Westerners, they decide (or rather, one decides for all three) to go looking for spiritual growth in that vast subcontinent. Like so many Westerners, what they find is somewhat disappointing, in that India and her people aren't particularly worried about Americans' spiritual growth. Most Westerners - at least those who would go to India for spiritual fulfillment - have a sense that the country isn't really "real," that it exists as sort of metaphysical potential, and inevitably it seems that confronting the physical fact of the country is at least as daunting a task as any spiritual quest would have been.

The physical India cannot be denied nor ignored, so Anderson embraces it, and for the first time since Rushmore, uses a physical setting as it exists and not as it wants it to exist. Sure, the train, the Darjeeling Limited itself, is as Andersonian as anything you might ever see, but India is India, and beyond the director's quirks and tics. Given the narrative shift that occurs when the brothers leave the train - before this happens they are mistrustful, angry, insulated; it is only afterwards that they begin to grow and move towards something approaching comity and mutual understanding - it's at least a little tempting to wonder if the director is aware that his obsession with style has tended to crowd out the human element in his work, and this is his apologia.*

At any rate, the characters here are characters, not stand-ins like they were in The Life Aquatic, and their story makes for the saddest film in the director's sunny worldview. Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman, reprising his Hotel Chevalier role) have come to India at Francis's insistence to reconnect after their lifelong drift apart from each other intensified following their father's death. They come with the typical quirks, but also with some odd edges that aren't usual in Anderson's films, a certain cruelty that steps just past the childish pranking of Max Fischer or Royal Tenenbaum. Much of this is perhaps meta-textual: we know from Hotel Chevalier that Jack is an asshole (the short is indispensable pre-viewing, by the way), we know from other movies that Brody is a nervous and potentially snappish figure, we know from tabloids that Wilson has a literally suicidal darkness to him (and given that his character first appears wrapped in bandages, it's more than a little tempting to read things that probably aren't there).

Even so, these were never going to be three people who liked or even tolerated each other. There is real pain underneath their sniping, some of it from the actors, some of it from the writers (including Anderson, Schwartzman and Roman Coppola). It is not the most emotionally searing film of all time, or even of the weekend, but it is a significant branching-out from Anderson's previous child-men.

That said, all the things that make Wes Anderson who he is, are here: bright color, Futura all over everything, deadpan irony. Of course there's a soundtrack peppered with old pop songs used in the most extraordinary ways, although he's a bit more thoughtful about it: the story is punctuated at three key moments with three songs from the Kinks album Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One, each tied to a slow-motion sequence. While the director is very good as using that technique, he has never used it as he does here to decrease the energy from a moment, to make that moment more reflective. Particularly in the middle sequence, the effect is explicitly elegiac, and it's interrupted by something that I've never seen in an Anderson film: an extended flashback, used at precisely the right moment to explain how things got to be where they are. Not an original choice, but original for the director, and that counts.

Is it perfect? Not at all: there's still plenty of that old Wes Anderson claustrophobia here and there, particularly in the early scenes, many scenes that go on for too long, and I'm not yet sure if it's racist or not (though it is less glowingly white than any of his preceding films). The characters are still awfully quirky just for the sake of it. It's considerably less involving and more precious than Hotel Chevalier, and the way it resolves that film's storyline feels a bit predetermined. There is also a scene set to the Rolling Stones's "Play with Fire" that works so far as things go, but also literally reduces complex humanity to a series of shadowboxes, and is either the epitome of Anderson's aesthetic, or a parody of it.

Still, at the end of the film, when there is no resolution, but only the promise that the resolution is beginning, it feels very free and alive. It's the first Anderson film that ends without wrapping everything up (and the first that doesn't end on slow-motion, I might add), and so it's the first one that feels like it will continue going on after we've stopped watching. For an auteur noted for his control, letting the film's story go on past his influence is a gesture that makes the film unexpectedly fresh, if indisputably minor.