Wes Anderson, the darling of hip cinema, is well versed in the art of pre-fabricated whimsy. If the cliche “practice makes perfect” holds true, then surely Anderson’s latest venture — following a dynasty of three modest masterpieces, including the majestic “Royal Tenenbaums” — would be the best of all. Keeping such aspirations in mind, the movie is quite comical, but not because Bill Murray’s “I’m-Bill-Murray” character manages to garner laughs. (From where I sat, the only audible reaction to his jokes were muffled titters). But the film is largely funny for its colossal failures, smeared in technicolor across the silver screen.
To be fatalistic, perhaps the trailer is the only admirable aspect of Anderson’s oceanic project. A terse, beautiful montage with quips about Speedos and gyrating whales, the preview must have had college students pre-ordering their “Life Aquatic” posters months in advance.
The feature is little more than a two hour-long movie trailer. The dialogue and characters are cheap and unfulfilling; the entire experience feels like a visual gimmick. Anderson’s previous films, especially “Rushmore,” were able to masterfully concoct a golden ratio of style and substance. “Life Aquatic,” however, mainlines on glossy inventiveness, but tragically overdoses (think Uma Thurman gurgling on her living room floor in “Pulp Fiction”).
The film adheres to archetypal Anderson anti-heroes, irresponsible father-figures and supporting eccentrics. The film’s core is Steve Zissou — an aged, slightly washed up and usually stoned ocean explorer who travels the great blue unknown with his team of madcap oceanographers. Bill Murray languidly embodies Zissou with the same character he’s played in nearly ever one of his films of the past five years, at least the good ones.
Upon returning home to his dilapidated island fortress, he receives distressing news. “Your cat is dead — a rattlesnake bit it in the throat,” his raven-haired, ice queen wife moans. Eleanor Zissou is played by the wonderful Angelica Houston, whose scanty and detached dialogue makes her more of a celebrity prop than a character of substance. Rounding out the list is the creepily hilarious Willem Dafoe; a lifeless, moustached Owen Wilson; a typically mumbling (though atypically sharp) Jeff Goldblum and other predictably colorful weirdos.
The film’s central conflict revolves around a tragedy in Zissou’s recent excursion; while filming his best friend immersed in sheets of neon fish, he is devoured by what Zissou unscientifically names the Leopard Shark. He resolves to hunt the shark down and assuage his anger by murdering it. But he is faced with another, perhaps more daunting problem: an illegitimate child with a shoddy southern accent, Ned “Kingsley Zissou” Plimpton (Wilson). Ned joins Team Zissou for global adventure, fatherly love and many unsuccessful montages.
Before the Leopard Shark chase begins, the team acquires another member, a pesky and pregnant journalist played by the respectable Cate Blanchett. Roving around the cartoonish ship with a notepad, pencil and sharp questions delivered in a British accent, she manages to be the most annoying sailor on deck. Also, she spends her evenings reading Proust to her unborn child. Both Zissou men desire her greatly, though she caves in to Ned’s southern charm, which contrasts harshly with his father’s pessimism. (“That pregnant slut is playing us like a fiddle,” Zissou complains.)
If you haven’t seen and revered Anderson’s previous films, perhaps “Life Aquatic” won’t whet your appetite for cyanide. In fact, one might even enjoy the film’s somewhat perverse, artful storybook charm. Stylistically, all his usual elements are intact, such as the exquisitely framed shots, crooning vintage songs, indie-retro ambience and, well, Bill Murray.
Yet, when it comes to its heart, the film does not measure up. Scenes of East Asian pirates and a 3-legged dog feel random, cruel and distant. Similarly, the movie’s plethora of sea creatures — gaudily computer animated monstrosities — are cheap and, despite honorable intentions, off-putting.
Considering the music of “Rushmore” and “Tenenbaums,” even the soundtrack seems uninspired. (The cuteness of Portuguese covers of classic David Bowie eventually wears off). And the inevitable leopard-spotted climax? Being privy to the film’s finale would be less anticlimactic than experiencing it firsthand.
Like any wide-eyed bystander witnessing such disappointment, the film left me shaking my head in dumb horror (though, admittedly, it left others doing the same in swooning gratification). While “Rushmore” was a foray into the realm of charm and adolescent sentiment, and “Tenenbaums” was a gold mine of familial dysfunction and tragicomedy, “Aquatic” is a shipwreck. Is there any way for this film to exonerate itself from its own mess? No, but the other films are available at your local video retailer.