A helium-tickled beach ball of a movie that struggles to stay inflated, Wes Anderson’s lumberingly titled new film is all absurd-ironic concept: the fairy-tale misadventures of a Jacques Cousteau–style oceanographer-documentarian, more of an aging brand-name icon than an actual scientist, embarking on an impulsive final mission. Steve Zissou (Bill Murray, in a Grizzly Adams beard and red Calypso cap) is a tireless self-mythologizer enduring a waffling sort of midlife crisis, but since it’s an Anderson movie, Zissou’s obsolescence (nobody cares about his films anymore) hardly impinges upon the full-frontal whimsy. The perpetually stoned hero is confronted with an affable grown son (Owen Wilson) he didn’t know he had, endures the peccadilloes of an eccentric multiculti crew (led by snit-throwing papa’s boy Willem Dafoe), calls for an impromptu midnight beach shoot when hundreds of glowing jellyfish wash ashore, encounters Henry Selick–animated fish you’ll never see in any aquarium. (The first, a Froot Loops–colored seahorse, must be transferred to a champagne glass amid a black-tie gala scuffle.) We’re introduced to Zissou’s famous ship—the Belafonte—room by room, in exposed cross section, as if the entire film were to be set, à la Dogville, on a single stage.
There’s something retrogressive, almost Méliès-esque, about the strategy Anderson has found here and in The Royal Tenenbaums: flat compositions, direct camera address, expository demonstrations for the camera’s sake, an abstracted nursery worldview, a vaudeville sense of progression. When, late in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, we see a Nautilus-style mini-sub plunge past fake seaweed forests trailing a cutout bluefish as bait for a legendary “jaguar shark,” you get a taste of fin de siècle cheese tangy enough to inspire a hunger for a film that lets the antique beauty bloom.
Anderson’s new film doesn’t, quite; it’s a collage of half-measures. If Tenenbaums found its legs as a sympathetic satire on the family epic, Aquatic is in perpetual horizon scan, searching for significance. There’s considerable charm in the concept of spinning magical-realist footle out of a cultural manifestation that vanished decades ago into the bottomless well of televisual nostalgia (all of Zissou’s equipment is dated to the Cousteau era, while hot competitor Jeff Goldblum is glutted with state-of-the-art hardware), and in Anderson’s wistful taste for milieu: Tenenbaums‘ every-day-is-Christmas New York–ness, and Aquatic‘s nautical nighttime opulence. But his narrative tack amounts to a stream of brief blackout sketches—a paper doll’s whisper of plot, to para-tag Mizoguchi. Serendipity is the primary storytelling force, and yet it’s rarely portrayed as odd or notable. Most of the beguiling ideas that constitute The Life Aquatic are all setup, so the sotto voce comedy has no momentum. Anderson’s deadpan, self-conscious-white-man funkiness works best, it seems, in his trailers (as with the moment Murray demonstrates the Zissou team’s helmet music, subtly grooving to a Mark Mothersbaugh techno beat). There are few fully cocked laugh lines, and no money shots.
For all of the characters’ laudable idiosyncrasy, virtually no one in Aquatic‘s cast has a chance to bump out into three dimensions, a serious handicap to play against when the sensibility at work is striving toward a cocktail of Renoir-slash-Sturges humanism and Disney folkiness. It’s an anally constricted universe—the occasional Siamese cat or killer whale poking around in the background notwithstanding, little is allowed to happen by accident, and a certain airlessness eventually takes over. Dafoe, Anjelica Huston (as Zissou’s disinterested billionairess wife, relegated to smoking brown cigarettes in every scene), and Bud Cort (as a “bond company stooge”) have the least to work with; Cate Blanchett, as a confused and pregnant journalist, works her close-ups like a dray horse. Wilson—whose absence on the script credit may account for a void—showed substantially more bounce and depth even wandering freely through the surf-bum nonsense of George Armitage’s The Big Bounce.
Murray is always pleasurable company, and his barely suppressed soulfulness might’ve supported this dawdling big-fish story if its insistent larkiness had abated and let a little reality in, as had Rushmore with Murray’s menopausal lost boy. As it is, the late attempt at cartoony tragedy and pathos feels creepily cheap. More an inspired notebook for a movie-to-be, The Life Aquatic has loads of wit flashes (any movie that scores on the heroism of a three-legged dog can’t be negligible), and is finally a forgivable drift with a large-hearted (if thinly expressed) beneficence and a faux innocence that’s nearly as lovely as the real thing. Nearly.