THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU showcases writer-director Wes Anderson’s inarguable strengths: a dazzling visual flair that he successfully imparts to his art directors and production designers and a gift for getting good actors to sign on and bravely soldier into Wes World. It also limps, lurches and self-destructs under flimsy artifice, nonstop smugness and what amounts to homicide by quirk. Anderson takes whimsy, sets it on a glass table and drops an anvil in its lap. Think Jerry Lewis being interviewed by Chevy Chase. His fans are tickled pink. For the non-charmed, there’s just no there there.
Good idea (his basic layouts are always clever), playing a parody-homage off those old Jacques Cousteau documentaries, which themselves were an odd mix of beauty and torpor (yes, Yves, the octopus is indeed a marvel, but I fell asleep fifteen seconds after you started talking). Anderson uses a wonderful cutaway set for following the cast around the inside their expedition craft. Like looking at a giant ant farm, 140 feet long and 40 feet high, it’s easily the best thing in the film. Color scheme is great, shot over in Italy off Naples and on Ponza in the Tyrrhenian Sea, by Anderson’s regular d.p., Robert D. Yeoman. Special effects of the magical pretend-fish are fun.
If only the jokes and characters (script co-written by Noah Baumbach) were even a quarter as funny or endearing as we’re obviously meant to think they are. From the depths of the web ocean, quoth one hooked Anderson devotee: “He gives us those long pauses and obscure references that will either force you to think or create frustration because you do not understand his meaning.” Whew, so glad that’s cleared up—I’d always have remained in the dark. (Baumbach deftly recovered from this 2004 stumble with a triple: The Squid And The Whale, Margot At The Wedding and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. )
Murray plays the foolishness drier than Phoenix in August, but he can’t keep it from sinking. It didn’t spring a leak as much as it just wasn’t watertight to begin with. The final third gives up and goes glub! entirely, throwing any semblance of fine-line fantasy out the porthole. $50,000,000 was invested in the launch, critics rowed away, audiences bailed with only $34,800,000.
Flailing aboard: Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston, Michael Gambon, Bud Cort, Noah Taylor, Seymour Cassel and Seu Jorge, who plays Portuguese versions of David Bowie songs to accompany the exhausted adventures, troubadour style. At least a half-hour too long at 119 minutes.
* The vessel used by Bill Murray and his loyal crew as the good ship RV Belafonte was first the HMS Packington, minesweeper, sold to the South African navy as the SAS Walvisbaai, later converted to a yacht named Mojo, out of Panama.