Anyone who saw director Wes Anderson’s last movie, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)—or his first two, Bottle Rocket (1996) and Rushmore (1998)—knew they were in the presence of a unique talent: a quirky, deadpan comic sensibility with a delightfully skewed perspective on the slings and arrows of life. We need to see more filmmakers like Anderson; the art depends on it.
And that may explain why some critics are bending over backward to make allowances for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson’s new movie. Nobody wants to discourage such an individual and distinctive voice. But The Life Aquatic is a sluggish, lifeless, monumental disappointment—annoying, smirking and self-satisfied about its own cleverness and ironic detachment.
The main character is Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), a famous undersea explorer and documentary filmmaker (a rather odd closing title goes out of its way to assure us that Zissou is in no way based on real-life oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau). We first see Zissou at an Italian film festival, where he is premiering his latest documentary. Or, at least, he’s premiering the first half of it, in which his partner and best friend, Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel in a wordless two-shot cameo), was attacked and eaten by the rare “jaguar shark.” Esteban’s death has brought a sudden halt in production, but Zissou plans to resume, hunting down the shark and killing it in the second half of his film. Why, someone asks, does he want to kill a member of an endangered species? After a long pause, Zissou mutters a one-word reply: “Revenge.”
On this skeletal, postmodern Moby Dick framework, Anderson and his co-writer, Noah Baumbach, hang a number of oddball characters, with some high-powered actors to play them—most of them (like Murray) veterans of Anderson’s earlier movies. There’s Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), Steve’s estranged wife—and, some say, the brains behind his operation; Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), his hypersensitive German cinematographer; Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), the pregnant journalist covering this latest voyage; Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), Steve’s rival in more ways than one; and Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), the Kentucky airline pilot who might be Steve’s illegitimate son.
Then there’s Zissou’s ship, the Belafonte, which is so eccentric that it almost qualifies as a character in its own right. It’s shown as a cutaway set through which Anderson’s camera roams with a cheerful disregard for realism. As a final touch, Anderson throws in an eye-popping variety of colorful (and mythical) sea creatures animated by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach), to add to the quirky unreality of it all.
Anderson seems to have all the elements on hand, but he never figures out what to do with them, and The Life Aquatic never becomes more than a puddle of random, unconnected ideas. Zissou and his crew lead a covert raid on Hennessey’s ship, stealing the equipment they need, and then later are attacked themselves by Filipino pirates who kidnap the agent from Zissou’s bonding company.
Through all this welter of plot and bizarre characters, we wait in vain for some kind of inspiration to kick in, or for Anderson to let us in on his wavelength, but nothing ever connects; Anderson moves on to the next setup while we’re still wishing something would happen with the last.
It may be that Baumbach isn’t the correct writing partner for Anderson; his other scripts were co-written with Wilson, and Wilson certainly gives the most affecting (and least affected) performance here. I don’t know enough about Wilson’s gifts as a writer, but it may be that he helps focus Anderson’s vision in a way that Baumbach (or Anderson himself) can’t. Whatever the cause, The Life Aquatic remains a rough draft of semi-clever ideas, staged with a deadpan diffidence that drains the film of energy and the characters of humanity.
Sometimes “deadpan” can mean wry, mordant, acerbic or droll. Sometimes, though, deadpan—as in The Life Aquatic—is simply dead.