The Life Aquatic with Steve ZissouWes Anderson's first film, the beautiful Bottle Rocket, was about young men trying to outrun the growing shadow as their youth set like a sun. Following that with Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, he moved to center stage older men who wanted to capture some lost or never-found bit of youthful life.
In Rushmore, Bill Murray's saggy old soul was balanced and energized by Jason Schwartzman, whose manic precocity substituted neatly for the director's own. Gene Hackman's Royal Tenenbaum had no such partner; his ensemble-cast family had enough will and antagonism to postpone the inevitable decline of the movie until the middle of the third act, where it underwent a kind of entropic collapse, papered over with Anderson's dedicated visual iconoclasm and twee pop scoring.
For his latest film about the decline of a man well past midlife, Wes Anderson has scripted neither a willful ensemble nor a youthful partner to goad Murray's Zissou. The central character, sick with rot, is also the virtually unquestioned leader of the proceedings; as a result, the rot and the entropy seep out, dragging the whole movie down to something like a drowning death, which I understand are peaceful and sleepy. If the director was present in Jason Schwartzmann's character in Rushmore, he is equally so in tired, past-his-prime Zissou. But such a close bond between form and content does his movie no favors. If Anderson feels that he is a spent auteur before a suspicious audience, the sad proof is in his film.
Anderson displays his trademark visual invention, but it is tired and forced: every single shot is framed dead center, except for a few scenes of dialogue that require a concession to a shot-reverse-shot template. Even the reveal of the ship as a constructed set with cutaway walls for camera movements, clever though it is, deflates the films's energy.
A single tender moment comes when Zissou, in a submarine holding every member of the ensemble (besides the gratuitously topless script supervisor, who has abandoned ship) sights the jaguar shark. Unlike Ahab pursuing his White Whale, Zissou could not summon the leadership nor the physical strength to send his crew and his body after the shark; unlike the Whale, the jaguar shark has no icy planes of fearsome meaning, only impressive size and some whimsical CGI coloring. But the shark means that Zissou's expedition, and ours along with him, has not been a total waste of time. By setting the moment off with a familiar and exquisite Sigur Ros selection, the director got me.
In the LA Weekly's Year of Lists, film editor Ron Stringer wrote that "between Wes Anderson precious and David O. Russell (I ♥ Huckabees) precious, my choice was clear." He favored Anderson. To me, the choice looks like one between taxidermized precious and vital, raving lunacy, and I favor the latter. But Huckabees isn't the Russell film to compare to Zissou; Spanking the Monkey is. As an absent father, Bill Murray might have inspired something lively in Owen Wilson, who might have run away with the whole thing had he not been directed to try something different—and much duller. But Russell's father-and-son drama doesn't play out in the prep-school Thunderdome of Murray and Schwartzman, much less in the boy's-adventure retreading of Life Aquatic. It threatens the main character with the end of his education, the reversal of his family relationships, and all but the end of his life. It's not just pretty; in fact, it's not pretty at all.
See also, in n+1: "Wes Anderson makes parodies that aim to transcend mockery and produce the emotional affects of the genres they spoof."