Director Wes Anderson, an underground favorite since the 1996 release of “Bottle Rocket,” gained a rabid mainstream following from the success of 1999’s “Rushmore” and 2001’s “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Dedicated adherents to the cult of Wes will readily leap to the defense of his excessively gauche films the way a David Lynch fan will defend “Mulholland Drive” at the drop of a hat. And Anderson’s films, though not without their shortcomings, are indeed original and rewarding. “Life Aquatic” is a prime example of the director’s strengths and weaknesses.
“Life Aquatic” tells the story of struggling oceanographer and filmmaker Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), a man documenting a search and destroy mission targeting the shark that killed his best friend. Zissou risks the lives of his colorful crew while dealing with a nosy reporter (Cate Blanchett), his disgruntled wife, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), a rival oceanographer (Jeff Goldblum) and his purported long-lost son Ned (Owen Wilson).
The film is Anderson’s most plot-driven effort since “Bottle Rocket.” Zissou’s quest for revenge and his relationship with Ned are at the forefront of “Life Aquatic,” and the film’s colorful life blooms from these two primary themes. Where “Tenenbaums” struggled with the breadth of its material, “Life Aquatic” thrives because of Anderson’s emphasis on bare essentials.
The story, too, is enthralling, albeit thematically ordinary; Anderson manages to put his personal touch on the film’s substance. Zissou’s nascent relationship with Ned is thrown into oblivion when the two become infatuated with Blanchett’s character. To normal directors, such a scenario is standard fare, but Anderson injects Ned with a boyish southern charm while Zissou smolders with the rage of a foul-mouthed, frustrated sailor. Zissou’s character is perfect for Murray’s wry humor, and his performance rubs off on the supporting cast, especially Blanchett, who provides a wonderful foil to the film’s goofiness.
It is also refreshing to see the film’s humor adapted primarily from Murray’s brand of comedy. Subtle irony dictates the film as it did in “Bottle Rocket” and the humor is more consistent than it has been in Anderson’s last two films. Unlike “Rushmore” and “Tenenbaums,” the new flick doesn’t take itself too seriously, exemplified in a comical battle between Zissou and a crew of Filipino pirates.
Anderson’s trademark quirkiness is also augmented by the animation of the bizarre sea life in the film. With the exception of several live dolphins, he spurns the use of real animals and opts instead for the stop-motion animation of Henry Selick (“James and the Giant Peach”). The art itself is wonderful — its artificiality allows Anderson to exploit his own creativity and invent ridiculously beautiful sea creatures such as leopard sharks and glowing jellyfish.
Though well-made, “Life Aquatic” is still burdened by a weak script that recalls the shortcomings of “Royal Tenenbaums.” Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach (“Kicking And Screaming”) struggle to maintain a consistent vibe in the film. The drama and comedy are done quite well, but they never fully intertwine, making “Life Aquatic” seem like two separate films.
The star-studded cast, however, is more harmful to the film. Like “Tenenbaums,” the film is essentially over-cast with actors who appear to flock to Anderson for indie salvation. As a result, “Life Aquatic” ends up cluttered with characters that are underdeveloped.
Anderson’s latest is an entertaining and visually beautiful film, but it struggles under the weight of its potential. Months of rapid hype culminate in a good, but unremarkable film.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars