There’s a telling scene early in Wes Anderson’s at-times brilliant "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," where Zissou (Bill Murray), an aging, fading oceanographic documentary filmmaker divulges that he never knows what’s going to happen on his seafaring adventures, he just films it – a sentiment clearly meant for "Aquatic" itself. For the resolution of the main plotlines - Zissou and his crew's adventure to find and exact revenge on the mythical jaguar shark that ate his best friend Esteban (Seymour Cassel), and whether or not new Team Zissou member Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) is his long lost son – are subjugated for the two arteries pumping directly into film’s true heart: One, that it’s a movie about the making of another movie; a study, on the ocean, of a declining fictional filmmaker made by rather successful real one, as if "The Voyage Of The Mimi" and Federico Fellini’s "8 ½" had a bastard child. Two, and rather less successfully so, that it’s a vehicle for Anderson to further explore some of the adolescent-inspired themes featured in his previous work ("Bottle Rocket," "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums"): the redemption of an absentee father and a child-like longing to belong.
It’s soon clear that Zissou’s crusty vessel, the Belafonte, is as prepared for oceanic exploration as Marty Mcfly’s tricked-out Delorean. After all, did Jacques Cousteau have an editing suite, soundproof recording booth or camera-wearing dolphins on his ship? Like any real life movie set, the Belafonte features abused interns fetching gourmet coffee drinks; a fiery, demanding executive producer Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon); a watchful line producer, or in Zissou-speak “bond company stooge” Bill Ubell (Bud Cort); and a media-aware, egotistical, self-conscious has-been auteur, Zissou, and his trusty “crew” (boat and film-wise), highlighted by the faithful, funny and very “German” Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe). Indeed, there is a fully palpable artificiality to the movie that makes it clear that Anderson means to show us that we are, in fact, watching a movie. For example, the set of the Belafonte itself (built at Italy’s famed Cinecitta Studios, ironically where Fellini once held court) is shown as one giant cross section - as if a large machete had cut a real ship (or the director's figurative imagination?) in half – revealing its innards to the audience and allowing the camera to follow the characters as they walk and talk from room-to-room and floor-to-floor. While visually stunning, the effect can conversely distract attention away from the dialogue being spoken in those scenes.
Like Max Fischer’s final Platoon-styled opus in "Rushmore," watching the two action sequences in Aquatic - one a pirate invasion, the other a land-bound rescue - is like watching a lucky group of kids play cops-and-robbers with the coolest authentic-looking firearms and explosions ever; complete with a three-legged dog tagging (gimping?) along with our heroes. This child-like sense of security from belonging to a unit (the academy in "Rushmore," the family in "The Royal Tenenbaums") fits well thematically with the film, i.e. what is movie-making but playing grown-up make believe? On the other hand, what does not fit in as well is Zissou’s evolution from an emotionless, selfish lout into a warm wellspring of paternal feeling. Unfortunately, it is one of Anderson’s strengths – witty, sophisticated and heavily ironic dialogue – that does not deliver the desired affecting end. In fact, there are only a few instances where you can actually feel the film come up for any real emotional air from its idiosyncratic sea. In one scene, for example, Zissou, trying to reconcile with his wife Eleanor (Anjelica Houston) incongruously flicks a stop-motion lizard off his hand - and any hope for a stirring connection with it. That bit is a microcosm of Murray’s overall performance, which is too detached to make you believe he is capable of any real growth.
"The Life Aquatic" is filled with the dazzling touches one can expect from a Wes Anderson film: unique characterizations; sophisticated repartee; an excellent soundtrack (including David Bowie songs sung in Portuguese); and painstakingly detailed sets. But while in "Rushmore," you can, say, easily empathize with Max Fischer’s rejection by Ms. Cross, you get the feeling that in his subsequent films, "Aquatic" included, Anderson is content just to wink a whimsical eye at you while hesitant to portray any real feeling.