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Lifeless Aquatic

Wes Anderson's heroes aren't growing up, just slowing down.

Early in Bottle Rocket, writer-director Wes Anderson's 1996 debut film, a little girl asks her recently de-institutionalized 26-year-old brother when he will be coming home. "I can't come home," he explains. "I'm an adult." With that scene Anderson, himself 26 at the time, announced the theme that would dominate all his movies to date: the plight of the man-child, too old to live life like a kid but not mature enough to stop trying.

In Bottle Rocket, it was half-hearted thieves Anthony and Dignan straddling the gap between boyhood and manhood. In Rushmore (1999), Anderson went simultaneously younger and older, presenting us with Max Fischer, a boy growing up too fast due to a dead mother and flaky father, and Herman Blume, an unhappy fiftysomething tired of behaving like a grownup. He repeated this formulation in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), contrasting the Tenenbaum siblings, who'd lost their childhoods to precocity, with their capricious, irresponsible father, Royal. But the emphasis had already begun shifting from the young characters to the old. Where Blume was a supporting figure in Rushmore, Royal was the closest thing to a main character in Tenenbaums, as the title made clear.

With The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, released on video today, the shift is complete. The younger characters have been pushed to the wings to clear center stage for Zissou (Bill Murray), a once-famous underwater documentarian teetering on the brink of irrelevance. (Picture a burned-out Jacques Cousteau from Chicago.) The movie opens with Zissou's latest documentary, The Jaguar Shark (Part 1), opening to a lukewarm reception in Italy. During the course of production, Zissou's best friend and longtime diving partner Esteban was eaten by the giant marine predator of the documentary's title, and Zissou pledges that in Part 2, he will hunt the monster down and kill it. ("I don't know how yet," he allows. "Maybe dynamite.")

Raising money for the endeavor proves difficult, however, as Zissou has not had a hit in a decade. His Greek business manager (played with cosmopolitan sleaziness by Michael Gambon) fails to get funding from a Saudi princeling; his wealthy, semi-estranged wife Eleanor (a jaded but regal Anjelica Huston) is disinclined to invest any more of her parents' fortune. Fortunately for the venture, who should appear but Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a Kentucky pilot who may or may not be Zissou's son from a 30-year-old assignation. Ned is invited to join Team Zissou, and in short order pledges the inheritance from his dead mother to the jaguar shark expedition.

In the course of the voyage, Team Zissou will steal oceanographic equipment and an espresso machine from Zissou's far more successful competitor Alistair Hennessy (a wonderfully self-regarding Jeff Goldblum); Zissou and Ned will both fall for a pregnant reporter (played by a pregnant Cate Blanchett) tagging along for a magazine story; pirates will attack the ship and kidnap a member of the team; a daring rescue will be undertaken; and the jaguar shark will be encountered once again, though not until after Zissou has run out of dynamite.

The Life Aquatic, in other words, contains a great deal more activity and adventure than Anderson's previous films. Yet, if anything, its pace is more sedate. This is partly because it is his longest movie to date, clocking in at just under two hours. But it is also because as his boyish protagonists have grown older, their metabolisms--and those of the movies themselves--have been slowing down. Where Bottle Rocket and Rushmore are propelled by the ardor and energy of youth, Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic are characterized more by an air of wistfulness and regret. The evolution is reflected in Anderson's musical choices. In Tenenbaums, the furious British Invasion chords of Rushmore gave way to a coy cover of "Hey Jude." The Life Aquatic continues this progression toward a kind of languid irony, its soundtrack consisting largely of acoustic versions of David Bowie songs, sung in Portuguese by Brazilian musician Seu Jorge.

Casting, too, contributes to The Life Aquatic's peculiar lethargy. In Tenenbaums, Gene Hackman brought infectious enthusiasm and angry undercurrents to the role of Royal. Murray's Zissou, by contrast, is typically laid back, a wry and rather downbeat observer of his own life passing him by. While Murray's drowsy comic gifts are frequently used to delightful effect--is there any actor alive who's better at underplaying a punch line?--they're unable to provide the film with much in the way of forward momentum.

Murray played essentially the same character in Rushmore and in Sophia Coppola's Lost in Translation: a highly successful man who'd lost his enthusiasm for life and was merely going through the motions--the faltering marriage, the career on autopilot and beginning its descent. In those two movies, his inner fires were rekindled by a relationship with someone half his age, still full of vitality and promise. But he has no such tinder in The Life Aquatic. In theory, Owen Wilson's Ned ought to fill that niche. But Wilson, too, is a bit listless, coasting through the role of pipe-smoking straight-arrow instead of taking comic advantage of his casting against type. (This is the first of Anderson's films that Wilson did not co-write, his place having been usurped by Noah Baumbach.) The movie comes most to life in the scenes with Goldblum, whose uptight energy is a nice counterpoint to Murray and Wilson, but his screen time is sadly limited in the film, as in his career of late.

As a result, The Life Aquatic drifts along at a lazy pace, the occasional encounter with pirates notwithstanding. This might not be such a problem if the content of the movie were more amenable to such narrative understatement. But it isn't. The Life Aquatic is Anderson's wackiest film by far, full of over-the-top gags and situations. Its oceans contain Dr. Seuss seascapes and teem with goofy digitized sea creatures--the 60-foot, fluorescent jaguar shark, a rhinestone-encrusted bluefin, glowing "electric jellyfish" that wash up on shore, etc. (A fish able to turn itself inside-out appeared in the trailer but didn't make the cut for the movie.) Even the characters are more openly absurd than in past Anderson films. Klaus (Willem Dafoe), a sycophantic crewmember with a preposterous German accent, is a caricature so cartoonish that he almost could have wandered onto the set from a Coen brothers' project. Humor this broad demands an emphatic tempo, not the idle, tongue-in-cheek pacing that The Life Aquatic provides.

This mismatch between joke and delivery is further complicated near the end, when the film briefly ceases to be funny at all. There is an accident and, as a result, the death of a main character--a death that, unlike Estaban's at the beginning of the film, is not played for laughs. But the moral gravity of the moment hasn't been earned by anything that's come before it, and the tragic development serves no real purpose in furthering the plot. It's just dropped in there, a weird and slightly distasteful stab at seriousness in an otherwise unserious film. No sooner has it occurred than the movie shies away from it, sliding back into its awkward comic rhythms. The jaguar shark is found, the documentary is completed, and there is another Italian premiere, once again with Team Zissou short one member. Not that anyone seems to mind much: Soon enough, the rest of the cast is strutting jauntily back to the ship to the strains of "Queen Bitch," a Bowie tune at last played in its original, red-blooded form rather than as an arch, acoustic knockoff. It comes about two hours too late.

The Home Movie List:
Go, Wes, young man

Bottle Rocket (1996). The most likable of Anderson's films, it never tries too hard--perhaps one reason why for all its appeal it is oddly forgettable. Wilson brothers Owen and Luke have a pleasant enough chemistry that it's surprising they haven't appeared together more often.

Rushmore (1999). In Max Fischer, Anderson created a true original, a man-child whose precocity was due not to any particular gifts but rather to his own furious will. The counterpoint with Murray's Blume was perfect, resulting in Anderson's best film by far.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Clever and witty, as always, but Andersen's increasingly hermetic control and twee affectations stifled much of the life from the movie. Thankfully, Hackman could not be contained, giving a dynamic performance that saved the film from portraiture.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). Even the title takes its own sweet time. Murray is a national treasure, but this monument to his hangdog charms is too big and unwieldy to do them justice.