Wes Anderson’s previous comedies, particularly his 2001 hit The Royal Tenenbaums, have rightly marked him out as one of the US’s most important directors right now. Anderson always takes meticulous care in the look his films, encompassing an obsessive attention to detail; he scores them with the love of an equally obsessive pop fan; and as his reputation grows, he is able to assemble a cast that most other filmmakers would die for.
Where the Tenenbaums was very much an ensemble piece, and the new picture’s cast list is, if anything, even more impressive, this time it’s strictly Bill Murray’s film. Murray plays the eponymous Zissou, a middle-aged oceanographer loosely based on the legendary Jacques Cousteau, who goes out exploring the wonders of the deep, and filming pretty much everything that happens during his adventures.
This unwittingly includes the bloody death of his best friend, Esteban (Seymour Cassel), mauled by a possibly mythical Jaguar Shark during an expedition. And so Steve Zissou announces at a screening of that fateful film, that he is going to hunt down and kill the shark. When an audience member enquires why, he announces with the contempt verging on boredom (or vice versa) that is unique to Murray, “revenge”. And so, there ends any blurring of boundaries with the rather more scientific Cousteau.
The Life Aquatic is driven then, by Zissou’s need for closure. But when he is approached by Ned Plimpton (Anderson’s old university buddy Owen Wilson – ever-present in his films), and the young man reveals he may be his illegitimate son, Zissou takes him under his wing, and recruits him for his team.
This causes friction with one of the professionals in the crew, Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe, with German accent), and things unravel further when Zissou’s wife, and apparently far more knowledgeable other half, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), announces she won’t be joining the next expedition. As if that weren’t friction enough, an English reporter (Cate Blanchett) comes aboard ship, ostensibly to write an article about Zissou, but ultimately to teach him some hard home truths.
Add to the above Michael Gambon as Steve’s luvvie producer, and Jeff Goldblum as his nemesis and fellow oceanographer (and Eleanor’s ex), and things get really complicated. Murray’s character knows that his world is falling around his ears – though it takes him time to come to terms with the fact – but all the while the cameras keep rolling on Team Zissou.
Visually, everything about The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is as impressive as would be expected. We see the ship in cross-section, complete with editing suites, observation points, and an underwater craft ready to launch; we see incredible, imaginary, fluorescent computer-generated creatures of the deep; and we enjoy whole scenes bathed in (what else?) aquatic blue. And just for good measure, Seu Jorge (City of God) plays Pel dos Santos, a member of the crew whose sole purpose is to turn up in numerous scenes performing classic David Bowie songs in Portuguese on acoustic guitar.
Everything is set up, then, but The Life Aquatic doesn’t really engage. There simply aren’t enough laughs. Bill Murray plays another facet of a character he knows only too well, but his Steve Zissou lacks any real warmth, and so struggles to carry the film on his own. A shame really, when Anjelica Huston, for instance, lights up every scene she appears in, and Noah Taylor and Bud Cort are also excellent in supporting roles. This particular fishy stew is missing its one essential ingredient.