All of director Wes Anderson's movies have an idiosyncratic charm, but quirkiness alone isn't necessarily a virtue.Like all of Anderson's previous movies, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou features a great soundtrack mixing Devo stalwart Mark Mothersbaugh's Muzak-like incidental score with well selected pop tunes, a distinctive 70s-influenced visual style and characters who are fighting to make their way in a world that really doesn't and probably never will understand them.
Anderson's current misfit is once revered marine explorer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), who is now struggling to keep his faltering career afloat. The documentaries that once helped fund his quests are now money pits, his ship The Belafonte needs more diligent maintenance, and his wife and all too frequent financial backer (Anjelica Huston) has tired of him.
He's also lost his partner Esteban to an attack from the rare jaguar shark. Zissou is determined to locate and kill the beast. He gets help from an unexpected source when a young fellow named Ned Plimpton (Anderson regular Owen Wilson) announces that he's Zissou's illegitimate son and becomes part of the crew.
The voyage becomes rather perilous because some of the crew can't stand each other, and a nosy disgruntled (and pregnant) reporter (Cate Blanchett) is following everybody around. They also have to deal with a rival explorer (Jeff Goldblum) with better backing, pirates and exotic sea creatures (animated by Henry Selick of The Nightmare Before Christmas fame) that you won't find in an encyclopedia. Who knew crayon fish could be kept as pets?
Anderson's distinctive touch is all over these adventures. His films are loaded with sonic and visual ideas that few others would embrace. One fascinatingly bizarre touch is featuring a Brazilian crew member who serenades the rest of the mariners with Portuguese covers of David Bowie songs. The make-believe sea creatures are oddly reminiscent of anime beasts, and Murray seems to enjoy playing a weary blowhard.
The storyline by Anderson and Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming) seems a little too loose. The narrative takes a while to really kick into gear, and even fantasy films can go too far with suspending disbelief. According to The Life Aquatic, a hero's pistol can hold hundreds of bullets and can help him take out legions of more heavily armed pirates.
The droll wordplay that accompanied Anderson's earlier movies Bottle Rocket and Rushmore is still there. Listen to how Murray introduces Wilson.
On the downside, many of the supporting characters only have an accent or a physical quirk to identify them. As a result, reliable actors like Willem Dafoe and Noah Taylor make little impression in Anderson's off-beat surroundings.On the whole, Anderson's latest is a pleasant voyage, but it's a shame he can't seem to make characters compelling enough to encourage viewers to dive in.