Wes Anderson's movies don't look and feel like other people's movies, and in fact are hardly reminiscent of what we have come to think of as Movies. Despite their assured minimalist visual style and obsessively detailed production design, which bring to mind a more immature and humanistic Peter Greenaway, Anderson's body of work feels closer to Victorian literature. His projects feature a dozen major characters, broad exposition, father-son melodramas, slow-building covert relationships, hugely shifting dramatic reversals, protagonists driven to perilous low points, and bittersweet climaxes. Somehow, because his approach is absolutely deadpan, the heightened emotions are restrained and therefore more affecting; and the sentimentality is all the more sweet because Anderson doesn't indulge in it.
Critics struggle to categorize, which is an unfortunate and fruitless task. How limiting is it to say that Anderson's world is as if Hal Hartley were directing a George Eliot novel? We attempt to pigeonhole artists who define themselves through a world that only they could create. So The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou places us back in the familiar world of The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore, this time mostly taking place at sea on the good ship Belafonte. The Zissou in question is an oceanographer in the Jacques Cousteau mold, played by the great Bill Murray. Like Royal Tenenbaum, he's an outright son-of-a-bitch, selfish, pigheaded, opportunistic, frequently drunk and stoned, and somehow loveable despite himself. Maybe it's because, like Anderson, he's obsessed with his world.
All of Zissou's equipment is old-school and rusting, yet it manages to encapsulate all aspects of his universe. His boat not only contains the requisite engine room and port bow, it also has an editing suite for his documentaries (which resemble '60s educational films) and sauna complete with masseuse. It's the life of a spoiled child, embodied in this larger-than-life figure just passing middle age. He brings with him a rogue's gallery of accomplices happy to play along with Zissou's Quest—best embodied in Willem Dafoe's wonderful performance as first mate Klaus, a wrapped-too-tight European fussbudget, and Seu Jorge as a Brazilian shipmate who performs acoustic foreign language covers of David Bowie songs on deck.
If "loveable" is the word that best applies to Zissou, it's not because he's such a great guy. He's created a world we love; the world we perhaps imagined as children that gets packed away in adulthood. It's like a grown-up returning to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and rediscovering what was so great about it in the first place, and the comparison is especially apt when pirates at sea arrive on the scene to hijack the Belafonte. The Life Aquatic gains resonance by Zissou's age, and Anderson seems very grown up when he chooses not to ignore real bloodshed in the midst of his whimsical comedy.
The Life Aquatic would be just a series of quirky events linked together by Anderson's whim—which would probably be just fine—if not for the appearance of straight-laced Kentucky pilot Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson, sporting a nicely trimmed moustache and an affable Midwestern line delivery), who may be Zissou's abandoned son from years ago, and Cate Blanchett as a clear-eyed British reporter (whose swollen six-month pregnant belly lays in wait for the academics to deconstruct when they start a thorough analysis of Anderson's World). Their presence gives some semblance of weight to the adventure, and allows Anderson to reach for pathos. He mostly succeeds. Anderson seemed more comfortable staying in the self-involved world of the Tenenbaums, and as he continues to open himself up to a larger world (including all the imaginary multicolored fish in the sea, designed by Henry Selick) he struggles with balancing the sweet, the sour, the absurd, and the genuine.
But we can count on Anderson's pronounced visual and verbal witticisms and the presence of Murray to guide us through the rougher waters of The Life Aquatic. Murray leads a who's-who pantheon of the greatest character actors working today (who all managed to get cast in this movie, Harry Potter be damned), and to all those who think he's been on a roll since 1998's Rushmore ought to go check out his exemplary work in Where the Buffalo Roam (as Hunter S. Thompson), Stripes, Groundhog Day, Ed Wood, and Kingpin. And he's as wonderful here as he's ever been. In an indelible screen moment, Zissou marches across the ship to the bow in order to smoke a joint and enjoy a private moment of reflection. The tracking shot is wonderful; and it's all about Bill Murray. No wonder he keeps getting cast in Anderson's cinematic museum exhibitions. The man's proven himself as a national treasure.