The affectionately confused life that usually pulsates a Wes Anderson film has drifted out to sea in “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.” Comedy overflows with Anderson’s signature motifs — from immature fathers and adult-like children to the storyboard-like arrangement of scenes on screen. But in spite of quasi-action storylines and relatively lavish set pieces, project reps a cul-de-sac for the gifted filmmaker. Even the good-natured spoofing of TV oceanographer Jacques Cousteau in Bill Murray’s Steve Zissou is muddled and will disappoint Murray fans, leaving pic with little good cheer at the Yule B.O. or later in vid berths.
Charitable viewers may speculate that the stellar cast’s half-mast energy and deadpan delivery are all part of Anderson’s devious strategy to suggest people underwater, or to relay Steve Zissou’s own extremely fatigued sense of himself as man of pop science fame. But the effect is often soporific.
Murray’s depiction here of the Exhausted Middle-Aged Male is a pale shadow of his over-the-hill actor in “Lost in Translation.” The energy dip is palpable in the opening sequence set at an Italian film fest devoted to aquatic cinema.
In that scene, Zissou’s latest edition to his ongoing series of armchair adventure films titled — what else? — “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” preems to an aud dumbfounded by the docu’s depiction of the bloody death of Steve’s longtime assistant, Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel). Certain that Esteban was swallowed whole by a huge “Jaguar Shark,” Steve declares that his next project will be filming the hunting and killing of the beast.
Anderson loves narrative clutter and piles it on quickly, introducing Steve’s motley international crew, including Brazilian singer and “City of God’s” Seu Jorge, whose only job is to warble a David Bowie song in Portuguese.
Also paraded onto Steve’s exploratory vessel the Belafonte: Steve’s ex-wife and the brains behind Team Zissou, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston); Eleanor’s other ex- and fellow oceanographer, Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum); Steve’s trusted mate Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe); and Steve’s shady producer Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon).
In addition, Steve encounters air pilot Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), who convinces Steve that he’s his long-lost son.
Pic is no more interested in real oceanography than Steve is, and, true to Anderson’s interest in eccentric families, uses the life aquatic as mere background for a poorly conceived comedy about a father and a son trying to know each other, and the woman who gets in the way.
That would be oceanography reporter Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), who’s determined to get the real stuff on Steve for her magazine. Jane insinuates herself into Steve’s life, and he alternates between giving her prickly interviews and trying to seduce her — while she and Ned heat it up in her cabin.
During one of his trysts with Jane, Ned abandons his watch on deck and doesn’t see Filipino pirates board the ship and kidnap meek bond company rep Bill (Bud Cort), who speaks Tagalog. Not only does Steve pull off a ridiculously-staged, one-man Dirty Harry attack on the fleeing pirates, but this bit gets extended into a mission to rescue Bill from a deserted resort island.
Pic falls between the put-on and the real — whether it’s the characters’ various relationships, the film-within-the-film (which looks too suspiciously directed with Anderson’s distinctive eye), or the scientific parts. Latter comes closest to a full cartoon, care of the handmade work of animator Henry Selick, whose usually candy-colored imaginary creatures hint at the wonderful, fully post-modern movie this could have been.
Murray, who has worked deliciously with Anderson before in “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” seeks but never finds a way to make playing tired not appear tired.
Cast appears to take its cue from Murray, slowing down to the point of stasis. Wilson, Huston, Dafoe and Gambon do not come close to the comic levels of which they are capable. Where Wilson is actually most missed, however, is as Anderson’s usual co-screenwriter — that task is taken over this time by Noah Baumbach.
Blanchett, unlike her uninspired cast mates, deploys a darling upper-crust Brit accent, some verve and a comely manner that could intrigue the most apathetic male. Right in his typecast groove, Goldblum swims through his small role as a man of leisure.
Insiders may chuckle at film biz jokes galore, starting with character names, but this also shows how the comedy as a whole operates in a vacuum.
Production designer Mark Friedberg’s attempts at showing the real and the fake are hit-and-miss, while the generally aimless eccentricity infects the music that includes composer Mark Mothersbaugh’s Casio-type sounds, classical cues and Jorge’s Bowie settings. Anderson’s regular lenser Robert Yeoman delivers his usual pristine widescreen images. For a studio pic, sound is shockingly poor.