The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou directed by Wes Anderson, written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, produced by Anderson, Barry Mendel and Scott Rudin, with Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett and Anjelica Huston. 118 minutes. A Touchstone production. A Disney release. Opens December 25. Rating: NN
On the evidence of rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson has long had the potential to slide into an arch, self-absorbed pretension. He's managed to dodge it by grounding his characters in their peculiar emotional realities. In The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou he's fulfilled that potential, and watching it is like being trapped in a series of dioramas. The title refers to the televised adventures of the hero, Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), an American Cousteau type famed for programs like The Burning Eels Of Antibes.
Jettisoning his usual writing partner, Owen Wilson, for Noah Baumbach, writer-director of Kicking And Screaming, Anderson mines his familiar themes - estranged parent-child relationships, troubled marriages - but sets them in an odd context designed to toss the viewer out of the immediacy of the characters into the director's cleverness. The cutaway set of Zissou's ship, the Belafonte, is clever once, but returning to it shows the thinness of the conceit. (For those who don't get the gag, Cousteau's ship was the Calypso, and Harry Belafonte became famous singing calypso songs.)
There are certainly enjoyable bits in the film, including Murray's increasing dismay as his wife (Anjelica Huston) seems ready to return to her ex (Jeff Goldblum), and the entanglement of his long-lost illegitimate son (Owen Wilson) with the journalist he'd had his eye on (Cate Blanchett). Willem Dafoe is very funny as the second mate.
Finally, all the stylized performances in stylized sets work to kill the film's emotional content. It's not that we don't like the characters; it's that Anderson won't let us get involved with them, a fatal flaw in something this strenuously whimsical.
Liked the shark, though.