The key to understanding director Wes Anderson's sense of humor lies in his feature debut, Bottle Rocket. In that deadpan 1996 caper, Dignan (Owen Wilson) stealthily springs his friend Anthony (brother Luke Wilson) from a mental-health clinic, where Anthony had voluntarily checked in for "exhaustion." Afterward, the friends hatch energetically plotted criminal schemes that are interrupted by periodic, persistent battles with depression, lethargy and boredom.
Most of the main characters in Anderson's subsequent features (1998's deservedly beloved Rushmore and 2001's less-deservedly-so The Royal Tenenbaums) follow this same behavioral pattern: exciting plan, burst of energy, fit of depression, repeat.
This certainly holds true in Anderson's fourth feature, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Its main characters struggle with the same manic-depressive cycles that afflicted Anthony, Dignan and Rushmore's Max (Jason Schwartzman) exaggerated representations of mood cycles to which most of us can probably relate. But as sources for comedy, these cycles began to feel a little tapped out during Tenenbaums. With Aquatic, they've been positively strip-mined.
The movie begins at a film-festival screening of the latest oceanographic adventure from Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), a fading Cousteau type who's made his living shooting undersea documentaries despite his elementary-school understanding of the subject. Zissou's latest work, however, ends with a tragic cliffhanger: the violent death of one of his crew members, who fell victim to a beast Zissou has dubbed the "jaguar shark." During a laconic post-screening Q&A, Zissou pledges to hunt down the chimerical creature.
The crew that joins him on this quest numbers such old faithfuls as Zissou's über-blasé spouse, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), and his sidekick, Klaus (Willem Dafoe), who's loyal to the point of barely contained homoerotic passion. New additions along for the ride include an airline co-pilot called Ned (Owen Wilson), who may be Zissou's son, as well as an outdoorsy journalist by the name of Jane (Cate Blanchett). Klaus' jealousy has him clashing with Ned, while the latter competes with his presumed papa for Jane's affections.
The entire expedition squeaks along underfunded and understaffed, facts underscored by the presence of a financing-company accountant (Harold and Maude's Bud Cort) who gets more than he bargained for when Zissou's crew runs afoul of ... pirates.
Anderson injects a certain amount of cinematic magic into all his work, buoyed by impeccable casting, set design (crucial here) and music. Unfortunately, his magic no longer complements his narratives and characters so much as it covers up for them, adding a thin veneer of sophistication to otherwise shallow proceedings. The plot of The Life Aquatic is fun, wacky and threadbare, in similar proportions to what we'd find in an Airplane! film. Murray and Wilson turn in predictably funny portrayals, but their work is trumped by some of the supporting roles. Blanchett's and Huston's characters come off exceedingly flat, and the blame goes not to their earnest performances, but to a script that consistently hands them the short end of the stick.
Don't worry about the jokes: The movie delivers plenty of them, some very funny. Worry instead about Anderson's future creative output, which, based on The Life Aquatic's flimsy plotting and his increasingly interchangeable characters, looks to be distressingly shallow. So far, each of his films has provided a viewing experience far superior to that of the typical Hollywood comedy. With his latest, the margin by which that is true has narrowed considerably. Anderson needs to diversify his bag of tricks A.S.A.P. unless he wants to exhaust his audiences' good will by cycling them through the same dreary spirals of ennui as he does his characters.