As one of the few cinephiles under age 50 who doesn’t drop to his knees at the mention of Wes Anderson, I was hoping to like The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (Touchstone Pictures), if only to prove that I’m not wedded to first (or second or third) impressions. But even a lot of Wes-worshippers concede that this one is a mess—a misshapen, mawkish tragicomedy bordering on self-parody. Its ambitions deserve respect, though. Anderson is attempting to bring his rather precious style to bear on the scope of a great man’s life as he stands on the brink of old age and decline. A selfish patriarch losing stature, watching his empire break apart, was at the heart of The Royal Tenenbaums, but this time Anderson wants to be inside his protagonist’s head and to nudge the usual quaint non-events that make up his plots into something mythic—hilariously deflating (the Anderson reflex) yet at the same time romantic, thrilling, and heartbreaking. Parodic, yet sincere.
That’s the design, anyway. But as is often the case with Anderson, the narrative design is elbowed aside by the production design. A few weeks ago, I lauded Pedro Almódovar by citing John Gielgud’s autobiography, to the effect that when an artist learns to do something well, he or she must control it and do it more selectively. Anderson is not, to put it delicately, given to self-control. It would be all too easy to Make Your Own Wes Anderson shot. Put a quirky person, dressed in loud but stylish colors, in the center of the frame; use a lens that spreads out the image and shortens the distance between foreground and background, creating a two-dimensional puppet-stage effect; stick an object or a character off to one side to throw off the symmetry; and, voilà. You’re in the New York Film Festival.
At their best, Anderson’s coy frames are moving: There’s a tension between the person and the persona, as if the character is trapped in the wrong storybook. (That’s what’s appealing about the adolescent protagonist of Rushmore—that he’s trying to devise a storybook that will do justice to his inner life.) But the framing is a mannerism, and often an emotionless one, the actors like puppets trying vainly to register inside the overpacked compositions. It’s well-known that, in The Royal Tenenbaums, Gene Hackman chafed at being posed and given line readings; as a result of that lordly resistance (a given with Hackman, one of our testier great actors), his performance transcended that frame and held the movie together. As Steve Zissou, Bill Murray doesn’t pull off the same feat. He tries to underplay soulfully, but the lines that Anderson and his brand-new accomplice, Noah Baumbach, have written him have no soul. Despite his home run in Lost in Translation, Murray is a neophyte actor, committed only to being noncommittal. He doesn’t have the size to play Anderson’s aging Neptune, a Jacques Cousteau-like filmmaker who loses a colleague to a rare “jaguar shark” and embarks on a (somewhat embarrassed) Ahab-like quest to track and kill the creature. That you never think of Moby Dick is both a plus and a (postmodern) minus.
At the center of The Life Aquatic is a figure who might or might not be Zissou’s son: a young pilot named Ned (Owen Wilson). The father/quasi-son conflict has been an Anderson staple. The kid lost the girl in Rushmore, but has had more success ever since. Here he wins the sexual battle but loses the war—in a stupid melodramatic turn that belongs in a different kind of movie. (It gives Anderson a chance to indulge in self pity on both sides of the generation gap.) Father and son fight over Cate Blanchett, who certainly does seem worthy of it. In The Aviator, she does a séance-worthy Katharine Hepburn; here, the voice is an octave higher and she’s the soul of a twitty upper class English TV journalist.
The Life Aquatic is gorgeous, especially if you dig fire-engine red and yellow juxtaposed with aquamarine. Anderson always seems to regard his movies as giant toy chests, and for this one he built a marvelous stage, a ship with an interior perfectly suited to long tracking shots from compartment to compartment. It’s too bad that the characters emerge onto a realistic looking deck beside a realistic coastline. Anderson should have stayed inside that beautiful dollhouse. For better and worse, it suits him.