Growing Pains

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Toward the end of Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the Jacques Cousteau-esque oceanographer (played Bill Murray) and his crew finally finds the shark that they have pursued with Ahab-like recklessness for most of the film. The crew is still traumatized by a tragedy that occurred earlier in the film, and as they stare at the animal, they are deathly silent. Finally, Jane (Cate Blanchett), a very pregnant journalist who has accompanied the crew on their journey, tells the aging seaman that in 12 years her child will be 11-and-a-half years old. “That was my favorite age,” Zissou replies wistfully.

That bit of dialogue explains a lot about Anderson, the precocious writer-director best know for Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. In many ways,Anderson is still 11-and-a-half years old, fascinated by fan clubs and decoder rings and pop music and all the other accoutrements of adolescence. It is that same adolescent sensibility that made Rushmore, which was essentially about a teenager who didn’t want to grow up, so successful. Rushmore’s tone perfectly matched Anderson’s story; it also helped that Anderson’s audience was also at an age where they could share his nostalgia. But adolescent charm can wear thin, and Life Aquatic indicates that Anderson ‘s style may not be suited to certain themes.

Anderson (pictured, right) is incredibly popular among filmgoers of a certain age. His earlier films, from the quirkily brilliant Bottle Rocket to the self-indulgent yet endearing The Royal Tenenbaums, have attracted a large following for their eccentric characters and elaborate set designs. Walk into any dorm room in America and chances are you’ll see a DVD of Rushmore or Tenenbaums.

I loved Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, especially their perfectly calibrated soundtracks. I also found Tenenbaums charming, even though many critics wondered if Anderson might be too absorbed in his own self-enclosed dream world. Many reviewers felt this was especially true of Anderson’s latest release, and this time I think they’re right. Life Aquatic is a bit of a mess that even the wonderful Bill Murray can’t hold together.

Zissou captains the “Belafonte,” a World War II ship turned production studio and living quarters for “Team Zissou.” Zissou’s oceanographic films were once quite popular, but he has hit a dry spell, and has been eclipsed by his rival, played by Jeff Goldblum. When Zissou’s best friend is killed by a shark, Zissou sets out to find the animal and kill it. He brings along Ned (Owen Wilson), a Kentucky airlines pilot who may or may not be his son, and Jane, the pregnant journalist who has been assigned to write a magazine cover story on Zissou for a National Geographic-esque magazine. Several times during the trip, Zissou wonders whether this will be his last journey.

Aquatic has a few of the sly comic moments viewers expect from an Anderson film (at one point Ned finds Jane reading Proust to her unborn child), and some bits of dialogue will surely find their way into the vocabulary of Anderson’s fans. But Aquatic’s flaws run much deeper. The sweetness that was at the center of Anderson’s earlier films?the big heart that beat beneath their ironic exteriors?is harder to locate inLife Aquatic. For all of its plot problems, Tenenbaums was redeemed by a few tender scenes, such as when Royal (Gene Hackman) led his grandsons on a rollicking tour of Manhattan. Aquatic has fewer of those moments.

Life Aquatic indicates that Anderson is getting older. Judging by the film’s tragic conclusion, it seems that Anderson is interested in exploring issues?like death and regret?that an older man must face. The question is whether he can do so with the techniques that made his earlier films so successful. Given the shortcomings of Life Aquatic, that may be harder than he thinks. But I’m hopeful that he can find the voice he’s looking for?one that retains the sweetness and absurdity of his earlier films while exploring the disappointments and challenges of adulthood. I’ll follow Anderson a long way, and if it takes a failed film or two for him to find his stride again, I’m willing to give him time. After all, I’m getting older too.