Even Wes Anderson's most ardent fans might scratch their heads at The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, wondering just how to process this fantastical tale of the Jacques Cousteau-like oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and his quest for the mythic jaguar shark that swallowed his best friend. But I think Anderson has left little signposts for the audience. For me it was right around the time Zissou's ship, The Belafonte, was attacked by pirates that the truly sublime silliness of the thing really registered, and I realized what we're dealing with here is Anderson's purest comedy to date.
Will I tuck into this one late at night when I'm feeling heartachy and low, like I do with Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore? I suspect not. The Life Aquatic can't walk the tightrope between comedy and tragedy, hilarity and pathos, like those two films do. But I'm not sure that's even Anderson's aim. His primary concern here appears to be funneling his impressive budget (his biggest to date) into eye-popping imagery.
The camera swirls from room to room, level to level on the ship. It's neat, all right, but it's also gratuitous, and is emblematic of Anderson's tendency here to sacrifice the story to whatever new gadget or cheeky sight gag he has on hand. Then again, there's little story to speak of. In addition to the halfhearted search for the jaguar shark, there is the ostensible heart of the film, the arrival of Steve's long-lost son, Ned (Own Wilson). Only here does the film grasp at sincerity in the attempts by blustering Steve and do-gooder Ned to forge a relationship. This business of absent fathers has been covered before, and better, by Anderson, but it doesn't get in the way of the real pleasure of the piece, which is in the nutty messes the crew of The Belafonte repeatedly lands itself into.
Murray fully commits to Zissou's little Speedo trunks and alarming egomania. He won't get the elusive Oscar for this one - for all the film's visual majesty, it's too slight - but let's hope he continues his collaboration with Anderson. I'm eager to see what Anderson might achieve when he strips away some of the busyness and shrinks the parameters of his playground. Until then, we've got the funny, bewildering, giddy spectacle of The Life Aquatic.