Get a rope 

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Bill Murray leaves his manic side ashore in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou as deep sea explorer Steve Zissou, which casts the rest of the crew, including Owen Wilson, Waris Ahluwalia, Anjelica Huston, and Cate Blanchett adrift in a sea of deadpan humor and affectation.

Wes Anderson's charm is drowning in a sea of affectation

Given that the Wes Anderson backlash has been underway for years now - it probably started when the charming, but minor, Bottle Rocket received its first rave reviews, but was unavoidable by the time 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums hit theaters - it seems essential for anyone talking about the director's latest film to first declare his pre-viewing inclinations. Call it the Wes Anderson Full Disclosure doctrine.

I have been a big fan of Anderson. The affectation in his work - little devices such as red velvet curtains or illustrated book pages introducing new "chapters," wardrobe design that gives each character a costume, artificial anachronisms - has stayed on the right side of the fence between Cutesville and Annoyburg, and it always seemed that this was because the filmmaker's wit was sufficient to justify his visual and stylistic tics.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Dir. Wes Anderson; writ. Anderson, Noah Baumbach; feat. Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, Noah Taylor, Bud Cort, Seu Jorge (R)
Judging from an unscientific survey conducted in the week since The Life Aquatic's release, many confirmed Wes fans felt the same emotions I experienced while seeing it for the first time: a numbing disappointment, slowly eroding our willingness to give Anderson the benefit of the doubt and, at the extreme, causing us to reevaluate our feelings about his previous films.

On reflection, one fault I noticed is the way the cast operates in comparison to Anderson's previous and most comparable film, Tenenbaums. Both films anchor a large ensemble around one central character. In the earlier film, deadpan dialogue and off-putting touches were balanced by Gene Hackman's outstandingly charismatic performance as the incorrigible head of a family he doesn't deserve. Hackman was offscreen for long stretches, but his personality and energy moved the film forward.

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Here, leading man Bill Murray keeps a tight lid on his manic side, emphasizing the quiet melancholy that has served him well in Tenenbaums (where his small role was used as comic relief) and Lost in Translation (an intimate, two-person story with a glossy romantic sheen). Quiet Bill worked beautifully in those films, but he isn't enough here.

As he did with the eccentric brownstone that housed the Tenenbaums, Anderson has built a dollhouse-like environment for his Aquatic characters. The Belafonte, the ship that serves as a floating HQ for the undersea explorers of Team Zissou, looks like a 9-year-old's daydream doodle: This room houses our gourmet kitchen, this one is a miniature movie studio, that one is a lavish sauna, and so on. In Tenenbaums, the fantasy environment was peopled with entertaining (if one-dimensional) characters; here, Anderson fills the ship with an international crew and then hardly lets them talk.

The characters who do speak - onboard visitors such as Cate Blanchett's suspicious reporter and Owen Wilson's Southern airplane pilot - are forced to use awkward accents and are given little material that plays to their strengths. Only Willem Dafoe as the insecure but loyal Zissou member Klaus Daimler really brings his goofball character to life.

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One possible culprit is the screenplay; it contains good ideas but can't seem to capitalize on them. This is Anderson's first film co-written with someone other than Owen Wilson, which prompts a mind-boggling question: Is it possible that lovable slacker Wilson, who happily projects a slightly dumb screen persona, is the brains behind Anderson's movies? That he takes Wes' obsessions and eccentricities and makes movies out of them?

Even on the music front, Anderson isn't firing on all cylinders. Where Rushmore and Tenenbaums made wonderful use of often underexposed pop records, Aquatic goes a step further by having Brazilian actor Seu Jorge perform offhand, acoustic renditions of a slew of David Bowie tunes. It's a nice idea, but the director completely misses the opportunity Bowie's epic and dramatic songs present. Where Anderson could have used them to bring some much-needed emotional content to this generally lifeless film, he lets them jangle loosely through the background.

Like many followers of Anderson's career, I will eventually make the time to watch The Life Aquatic again, hoping to enjoy it more with lower expectations. Mostly, though, I'll lament the fact that (based on his track record to date) it's likely to be three years before he has another film in theaters - and there's no clear reason to hope that he will have learned the lessons that The Life Aquatic has taught his fans.

By John DeFore

More by John DeFore



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