Agoofball takeoff on Jacques Cousteau, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is like a junior high kid's parody of outdoor-celebrity decadence set at picturesque ports of call, on uncharted waters, and 20,000 leagues under the sea. It's the strangest comic misfire yet from Wes Anderson - a cult director whose last, land-based extravaganza, The Royal Tenenbaums (also starring Bill Murray), also went down better with Dramamine.
Starting with the premiere of Zissou's latest documentary at a film festival, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou: Adventure No. 12: The Jaguar Shark (Part One), this film pours on scandals and intrigues that overflow with embarrassment for the title character (Murray) yet are devoid of any crackle, fun or spontaneity.
Is the Anderson cult so low-energy that it settles for know-it-all giggles? Zissou and his wife (Anjelica Huston) flirt with or fend off former and potential partners and lovers, then figure out how to handle a newcomer who may be Zissou's son (Owen Wilson).
Murray just floats through as if being blase were comic bliss. When his "son" develops a thing for a spiky, striking journalist (Cate Blanchett), Murray can't summon up a decent comical bout of jealousy, even though Zissou has had his eye on her. The beautiful depths of sarcasm and disgust that Murray mined in films like Stripes (1981) have degenerated into a codger's version of "Whatever."
For 25 years, Murray was my favorite comic, partly because his techniques were unpredictable (even unfathomable) and partly because something in his eyes suggested sardonic melancholy - perhaps a premature weariness, an enticing quality for a world-class wiseacre. But these days he puts all that stuff on the surface and gets acclaimed for "acting." He turns into a blob. You look forward to Blanchett's Gwyneth Paltrow imitation and Willem Dafoe's cartoon poignancy as a needy crew member - they may be slim pickin's, but at least they have some juice.
Anderson fills his film with loony, lethargic adventures. In his attempt to make The Jaguar Shark (Part Two), Zissou stages an equipment raid on the swank facilities of Huston's first husband (Jeff Goldblum); then Anderson stages a pirate raid on Zissou's own ship, the Belafonte. Anderson peppers what passes for action with intriguing curlicues, such as colorful fish animation by Henry Selick (Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas) and production design that resembles a live-action version of that psychedelic classic, Yellow Submarine.
But there's no soul here, countercultural or otherwise. The movie is so listless yet so proud of its whimsy that it demands someone to point out the obvious: in The Aquatic Life With Steve Zissou, Wes Anderson jumps the jaguar shark.
SUN SCORE 1 Star (*)
The Life Aquatic
Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum
Directed by Wes Anderson
Released by Touchstone
Time 118 minutes