The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) has been making documentaries about his underwater expeditions for ages, often with a lot of success, but the past decade has been difficult. Funding is diminishing, his films flop and on his last trip, his best friend and crew mate Esteban (Seymour Cassel) was eaten by a mysterious “jaguar shark”. Now Zissou wants to find it, film it then dynamite its ass. “What would be the scientific value of killing it?” “Revenge.”

Coming along for the ride are German ship engineer Klaus (Willem Dafoe), physicist and original score composer Vladimir Wolodarsky (Noah Taylor), pregnant reporter Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), four unpaid interns and Ned Plympton (Owen Wilson), an Air Kentucky co-pilot who’s “probably” Zissou’s son.

When I saw Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson’s first feature, I admired how it managed to be stylish and ambitious even if it was a little indie flick that cost next to nothing. I also found it original, hilarious and even a little touching. Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums share these qualities, except that each subsequent film has me feeling like Anderson is increasingly concerned with art direction and offbeat touches, to the point where story and characters become an afterthought.

“The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” takes this almost to the breaking point. I love the Belafonte, a World War II warship which was retrofit into an elaborate set around which the camera can wander freely. I love the dorky red hats and powder blue uniforms everyone is wearing. I love the David Bowie covers in Portuguese that fill the soundtrack (which also features songs from Iggy Pop and Sigur Ros). I love the colorful, kooky stop-motion sea creatures animated by Henry Selick. I love all the nonsense with the Filipino pirates. I love Jeff Goldblum as Alistair Hennessey, Zissou’s “part gay” arch-nemesis.

But does Zissou ever seem truly preoccupied with avenging his old mate? Does the father-son relationship between Steve and Ned follow any kind of arc or pay off in any way? Does their love triangle with the knocked-up journalist serve any purpose besides bringing in a female element? Do the crew members ever register like something more than extras walking around a sound-stage? Does the final confrontation with the jaguar shark feel remotely climactic? No, no, no, no and no.

Anderson’s movies are ever more “clever”, but there’s less and less substance behind the pretty images. Critics bitch at guys like Michael Bay for being all about empty style, but I actually cared more about the drilling crew in Armageddon (of all things) than I did about Team Zissou. “The Life Aquatic” is still good for a few laughs and it’s certainly full of eye candy, but in the words of Jeffrey Wells, Anderson “has painted himself into a corner with an even greater focus on detail and brushstrokes and deadpan acting, and in so doing has pretty much outsmarted himself.” Hopefully, Anderson will go back to something simpler and more involving like “Bottle Rocket” soon.