Wacky Waterworld

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou drowns its sweetness in quirks


Wes Anderson may be the Kate Spade of the film world. Handbag — and now lifestyle — designer Spade works from a retro-obsessed, aristocratic European-meets-American aesthetic. Anderson has a fashionista’s attention to the precise and emblematic look of things — Adidas sneakers, overhead projectors, fancy stationary, the wallpapered ambiance of his old-world sets — that constitute his scrupulously designed film worlds.

Anderson’s films (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) can seduce with their storybook cohesiveness and their ability to make viewers feel as though they’ve been plunked down into the heart of someone’s singular vision. But in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, leaks are beginning to erupt in Anderson’s snow-globe universe. Quirky details seem increasingly more important to Anderson than building a compelling story. The Life Aquatic feels like a headcheese of funny observations, snarky dialogue and cool James Bond locations that never quite gel into solid form. You get the feeling Anderson is standing back from his odditorium with a goofy, bloated pride, elbowing his viewers in the midsection as if to say, “Get it?” And on a $50 million budget, Anderson’s signature quirkiness can become overbearing and obnoxious, suggesting a kid who’s inherited millions but doesn’t know what to do with them.

Bill Murray is the titular Steve Zissou, another one of Anderson’s flawed patriarchs a la Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums. Zissou, an ocean explorer in the Jacques Cousteau mode, is a narcissistic, overbearing womanizer with a mixture of childish insecurity and wackiness that compels his crew and family to drink his charismatic Kool-Aid. Zissou has a much suffering wife, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), assumed to be the brains behind his bumbling aquatic adventurism. And he has also recently discovered he has a grown son, Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a Kentucky pilot who wears his airman suit for the film’s introduction before he switches over to the Team Zissou uniform of powder blue leisure suit and red pom-pomed knit cap.

Even fully grown, Ned exhibits the pitiful want of a fatherless child. Zissou — shrewd bastard that he is — is both touched by and exploits his son’s blind devotion to help further his cult of personality, composed of a melting pot of wacky multinationals. On board the Belafonte there are Hindus, Brits and a pissy German, Klaus (Willem Dafoe), prone to short shorts and fits of jealousy at having his daddy-obsession with Zissou jeopardized by Ned. Zissou’s rainbow coalition also includes a hilarious cadre of second-tier helpmates, addressed en masse as “the interns,” who do the grunt work of latte making and equipment hauling for the Belafonte crew.

Anderson’s vision of what is hip and funny is rooted in childhood and his generation’s desire to continually flavor the present with an emotional investment in the past. In The Life Aquatic, Anderson’s childhood fixation is mixed up with a cinematic nostalgia illustrated in Anderson’s references to seminal ’60s British filmmakers like John Schlesinger, Nicolas Roeg and Richard Lester. Anderson never met a zoom or a wide-angle shot he didn’t like and that retro film form, combined with his replication of faded film stock, shows a clear affection for the superior emotional effects of film past. Despite Anderson’s affection for forced kookiness, it’s hard not to give props to a youngish director who has an expansive enough vision of film style to look to a pre-Tarantino age for inspiration.

In Andersonville, the grown-up and juvenile interlace. The director shows his preference for willowy blond cupcakes, like brainy-but-ethereal Cate Blanchett adopting a weirdly singsong British accent as a reporter writing an investigative piece on Zissou. But sexual desire plays second fiddle to Anderson’s short-pants delight in Henry Selick’s computer-animated sugar crabs and electric jellyfish that pop up in the film to remind audiences of the magic of the natural world. Similarly, make-believe maritime maladies like “crazy eye” hint at fantastic adventure stories read with a flashlight under the covers.

“Crazy eye,” which could also describe Anderson’s oddball vision, afflicts Zissou the day he loses his best friend (Seymour Cassel) to the jaguar shark. The shark becomes Zissou’s Moby Dick, the elusive nemesis he spends the bulk of the film tracking with maniacal glee. As maddening as Zissou’s underwater archenemies are, his human foils like “half-gay” rival adventurer Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), who was once married to Eleanor, now “hogs” all the oceanic grant money.

Anderson has always teetered toward the cloyingly precious. But, as usual, he is redeemed by his compulsive pursuit of a Peter Pan boyhood. The Life Aquatic yearns for a lost age, when brave adventurers, not hip-hop stars, were the coin of the realm and the multilevel design of the Belafonte — with onboard sauna, editing room and fish tank — looks like the coolest backyard fort ever. There is, inevitably, a core of sweetness beneath Murray’s jaded attitude and sewer mouth. Life Aquatic — even more so than The Royal Tenenbaums — is a story of yearned-for fathers and a family patched together from the most motley bits and pieces. It’s hard to fault Anderson for striving — with clearly considerable effort — to create a film world more complete and satisfying than the real one.