Set entirely in Italy, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou follows famed oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) as he sets out to find the shark that ate his longtime partner (played by Seymour Cassel). Steve is an underwater filmmaker a la Jacques Cousteau, and his last few films have been tanking at the box office. Seeing in his friend’s unfortunate death an opportunity to reclaim the old magic, he sees to it that their most ambitious adventure to date will also be their most important film yet.
It’s certainly Wes Anderson’s most ambitious to date.It’s also a rambling, rambunctious mess, so chock-full of explosions and Portuguese David Bowie covers and a bizarre firefight with Filipino pirates that it’s easy to forget that there’s hardly any dramatic pull at all.The Life Aquatic is—at its best—a charming misfire.The wit is piled on in scads, but there’s no real payoff.It’s hardly ever funny, at least not the way Jason Schwartzman’s angsty underachiever was in Rushmore, or Owen Wilson’s sympathetically inept burglar was in Bottle Rocket.It bears the stamp of a Wes Anderson film, but it’s the only one so far that doesn’t sting you at some point with a little soulful significance.
And despite his winning smirk, Murray must bear some of the blame.The man is a delight to watch onscreen and Anderson makes no bones about the fact that he made Aquatic just to pal around with Murray in a gorgeous foreign country. But anyone who remembers Murray’s backhanded shout-out to his cast—still lounging across the pond on the film’s hyper-extended shoot—during last year’s Golden Globes, saw a confused and irritated man and Murray’s performance reflects that.His Steve Zissou is a genial, if antiquated specimen.
Zooming about on underwater gear from the old days (his mini-sub bears the name of his first wife, crossed-out in favor of the less personal “Deep Search”), Team Zissou still leads a pretty cushy existence.Not even the appearance of Steve’s long-estranged son Ned (Owen Wilson, in a bogus southern accent and lame “Air Kentucky” pilot’s get-up) can shake up the proceedings all that much.Ultimately, the big hang-up for The Life Aquatic is its lack of any pressing hang-ups. Steve has neither the self-hatred of Murray’s complacent dad in Rushmore, who declared war on a teenager over the attention of a pre-school teacher, nor the crass salesmanship of Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum, who faked cancer to worm his back into his abandoned family (the missing-father dynamic fomenting here is threatening to turn Anderson into a twee Steven Spielberg).And without an urgent emotional fulcrum, Anderson’s films quickly devolve into idiosyncratic fairy-tales in retro jogging suits.
The Life Aquatic presents a sticky critical situation. While the film will likely be a crushing disappointment for any Anderson fan, who outside his circle of followers will see it? A finicky, cultish filmmaker who has inspired a legion of finicky, cultish fans, Anderson’s films never had the teeth for true crossover appeal in the first place.Instead they’ve glided by on their characters’ wounded deadpan throwaways and symmetrical framing.Drunk on chianti and an inflated budget, Anderson wastes a lot of talent here; Anjelica Huston, so wonderful in Tenenbaums, disappears as a shrill heiress, reduced to smoking brown-wrapped cigarettes in every scene.Jeff Goldblum turns up as Alistair Hennessey, Steve’s main rival in oceanography (“Be nice to Alistair, he’s my nemesis”), but he’s given nothing to do except be rich and ambiguously gay.On the other hand, Bud Cort (Harold from Harold and Maude) milks his every moment for big laughs as a “bond-company stooge” who tags along on the big mission.Anderson’s biggest problem in the past has been drowning his characters in his production design, so it’s sad to see the filmmaker himself sinking under the weight of his own ambition.