(Originally published in Rocky Mountain Bullhorn)
With each successive film, director Wes Anderson pushes his idiosyncratic, painstakingly meticulous vision to the breaking point of preciousness, and Anderson’s latest gem, the imaginatively titled The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, comes closest to crossing that boundary between endearingly eccentric and suffocatingly studied. In a tour-de-force performance of droll wit dampened by melancholy, Bill Murray is Steve Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau-type oceanographer renowned for his documentary films about Team Zissou’s adventures on the high seas aboard the sea-faring Belafonte. In his latest film, Zissou’s best friend and right-hand man Esteban (Seymour Cassel) is eaten by a mysterious beast dubbed (by Zissou) the “jaguar shark” which, it soon becomes clear, may or may not exist. Heartbroken over his comrade’s demise, Zissou vows to hunt and kill the mysterious jaguar shark, and along with his wacko crew, a pregnant reporter, and his long-lost son Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), sets sail in a quest to conquer his own personal Moby Dick.
Summarizing any more of The Life Aquatic would be futile, as Anderson packs his rollicking comedy with an abundance of side-stories, the best of which include a Filipino pirate attack on the Belafonte that devolves into a campy action movie shootout and an ongoing feud between Ned and Willem Dafoe’s jealous deckhand Klaus. As usual, the director populates his film with an abundance of static, symmetrical medium shots featuring characters centered in the middle of the screen, and his frame remains cluttered with all sorts of strange, hilarious, details such as a Steve Zissou pinball machine and a goofy self-portrait of the submariner. Anderson’s script (written with Noah Baumbach) is layered with bizarre ironies and humorous awkward pauses that add to the carnival-esque atmosphere, and Wilson, as Steve’s Kentucky bumpkin son, brings a warmth and innocence to Ned that transforms the film’s central father-son relationship into something more heartfelt than a flippant joke.
While undeniably funny, gorgeous, and touching in spurts, The Life Aquatic does suffer from being a bit too freewheeling. More a collection of amusing, semi-related vignettes than an involving narrative, Anderson’s comedy can, at times, seem more concerned with its copious asides, peripheral visual minutiae, and art design (such as Zissou’s Yellow Submarine-ish mini-sub and Henry Selick’s stop-motion underwater creatures) than with fully fleshing out its themes of vengeance, hubris, and maturation. Yet watching Murray’s Zissou – a buffoonish man fearful that his heyday has come and gone, and desperate to find love and professional fulfillment despite his underwhelming intellect and emotional remoteness – as he shimmies to the Mark Mothersbaugh ditty piped into his scuba helmet’s stereo, one hardly feels compelled to complain about the minor shortcomings of such a delightfully peculiar, ingenious film.