The title character in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” is an oceanographer, played by Bill Murray, famed for his documentaries about undersea life.
Anderson’s invocation of a documentary aesthetic is a good joke. Only by turning to science fiction could one make films more isolated from the vicissitudes of reality than his. His blocking of actors is geometrically precise, his production designers’ work meticulously detailed.
In just four films, he’s shown one of the strongest, most individual voices of any American director of his generation. He’s now just 35, and was still in his 20s when he made his masterpiece, “Rushmore.” Unfortunately, Anderson’s gifts come with their downside. At their worst, his world can feel hermetic and airless—fittingly, the climax of “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” takes place in a submarine—and its style becomes more a method of making himself into a brand name than a personal vision.
“The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” opens at the premiere of Zissou’s latest film. Since it documents his best friend’s killing by a shark, it’s a rather melancholy occasion. However, he meets Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a young man claiming to be his long-lost son. Steve quickly welcomes Ned into his closely-knit crew. They embark on a new film, depicting Steve’s quest to track down and kill the murderous shark. A pregnant reporter, Jane (Cate Blanchett), comes onboard. While she seems hostile to Steve, she nevertheless draws his attention, as well as Ned’s.
In his 50s, Steve has remained an adolescent at heart. He has a homophobic streak, and he’s prone to fits of bitter self-pity. He constantly sneaks away to smoke pot by himself. He views himself as a failure. There’s something unnerving in his eagerness to treat Ned like a member of his family—overnight, he accepts him as a son. In a conventional feel-good story, that paternal responsibility would mature him. Here, it doesn’t. Instead, Steve and Ned wind up in a love triangle over the affections with Jane.
Anderson likes to place Murray at the center of the frame, with other actors positioned symmetrically around him. Even Steve’s documentaries share this staging. Unlike many directors who create their shots with eventual TV viewing in mind, Anderson uses the whole length of the screen. A connoisseur of ‘60s and ‘70s rock, he uses Portuguese renditions by Seu Jorge of David Bowie songs, played on acoustic guitar by Steve’s safety expert, Pele, as he lounges around the boat. Bowie’s own version of “Queen Bitch” plays over the closing credits. Visually, the biggest difference between “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and its Anderson predecessors lies in its use of animation. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” director Henry Selick has created a bestiary of imaginary fish for it.
Selick’s contributions are charming, but they don’t add any substance to the film. There’s a disconnect between the surface style and deeper themes. Melancholy gradually overwhelms comedy. Even so, the plot is full of twists and coincidences that are weird without being particularly funny. The halfhearted piracy subplot takes up an inordinate amount of time.
Irritatingly, Anderson tends to use people of color like cute mascots, rather than full-fledged characters. It must be said, however, that no character except Steve, Ned and Jane feels like a real person. Murray’s performance is impressive, even if Steve’s world-weariness is rather familiar territory for him, but actors as talented as Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe and Jeff Goldblum are stuck playing ludicrous cartoons.
At heart, even though Steve’s desire to become a true father is not in and of itself precious, gravity loses out to cuteness by the end of the film. Like many young American directors, Anderson may have defined himself a bit too quickly. From “Rushmore” to “The Royal Tennenbaums” to “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” he’s repeated the same look and feel with diminishing returns. Steve is just a variation on the depressed millionaire Murray played in “Rushmore.” This film has the misfortune of addressing grief and the desire for revenge just as these themes have become ubiquitous in American cinema.
For all his talent, Anderson doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. His style is slowly turning from an elegant signature into a trap.