If ironic distance were a perfume, Wes Anderson's new film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, would be drenched in it. Yet as an alluring scent, it wouldn't prove particularly effective.
Life bobbles along with oceanographer and documentarian Steve Zissou (Bill Murray). His organization's broke, and his partner has just been eaten by a shark (though luckily this calamity was captured on film). Zissou is a lonely, middle-aged, shabby sort of man, literally adrift -- until a couple of mildly invigorating strangers turn up.
Ned (Owen Wilson) might be the son Zissou never knew he had, and Jane (Cate Blanchett) is a reporter Zissou hopes will find him worthy -- in print or in bed. They join Zissou's multi-culti, ragtag gang aboard the rickety research ship, the Belafonte, in search of that bad shark -- and some sketchy personal development. Despite a lot of scribbling on the part of Anderson and his co-writer, Noah Baumbach, to create multiple intertwining threads -- domestic troubles, pirates, rivals, career crises, burgeoning romances and the Ahab-like pursuit of a killer fish -- the film lacks a compelling story.
Nothing in the film feels organic; the sets, the characters (including the "corporate bond stooge") and the storyline are all calculated for Anderson's peculiar and deliberately detached pantomimes. (If you find it funny that Ned is a pilot for Air Kentucky or that the crew broods mightily over red woolen watchcaps, Anderson may have your number.) We anticipate zingy pleasures, but the film soon grows stagy and airless.
Comparisons to Anderson's prior film, The Royal Tannebaums -- with its hodge-podge, hothouse family and reluctant father figure -- are inescapable, and yet Murray, who can reliably deliver a deadpan line, lacks the risk-filled vitality that the head Tannebaum (and savior) Gene Hackman brought to bear on his tribe. Murray's Zissou remains enigmatic, and barely likable. Wilson pretty much plays it straight, except for a silly Southern accent (that along with Willem Dafoe's Teutonic one is a sure sign that some comedy is being forced).
There were aspects of Life that I appreciated: the curious stop-motion undersea creatures, the ever-present golden light reminiscent of a Tuscan romance, the anachronistic environment aboard the Belafonte, and the film's homage to Jacques Cousteau, a vintage undersea adventurer. Combined with a few truly sublime and whimsical moments, Life charmed, but I was always aware of watching rather than surrendering.
The last reel struggles for a set of emotional closers that are contrived and hastily appended. Oops, was I supposed to be caring? I wanted to like Life, and I enjoyed watching it unspool, but like a pretty little fish, it flitted away and resisted embrace.