Early in Bottle Rocket, writer-director Wes Anderson's 1996 debut film, a little girl asks her recently de-institutionalized 26-year-old brother when he will be coming home. "I can't come home," he explains. "I'm an adult." With that scene Anderson, himself 26 at the time, announced the theme that would dominate all his movies to date: the plight of the man-child, too old to live life like a kid but not mature enough to stop trying.
In Bottle Rocket, it was half-hearted thieves Anthony and Dignan straddling the gap between boyhood and manhood. In Rushmore (1999), Anderson went simultaneously younger and older, presenting us with Max Fischer, a boy growing up too fast due to a dead mother and flaky father, and Herman Blume, an unhappy fiftysomething tired of behaving like a grownup. He repeated this formulation in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), contrasting the Tenenbaum siblings, who'd lost their childhoods to precocity, with their capricious, irresponsible father, Royal. But the emphasis had already begun shifting from the young characters to the old. Where Blume was a supporting figure in Rushmore, Royal was the closest thing to a main character in Tenenbaums, as the title made clear.
With The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, released on video today, the shift is complete. The younger characters have been pushed to the wings to clear center stage for Zissou (Bill Murray), a once-famous underwater documentarian teetering on the brink of irrelevance. (Picture a burned-out Jacques Cousteau from Chicago.) The movie opens with Zissou's latest documentary, The Jaguar Shark (Part 1), opening to a lukewarm reception in Italy. During the course of production, Zissou's best friend and longtime diving partner Esteban was eaten by the giant marine predator of the documentary's title, and Zissou pledges that in Part 2, he will hunt the monster down and kill it. ("I don't know how yet," he allows. "Maybe dynamite.")
Raising money for the endeavor proves difficult, however, as Zissou has not had a hit in a decade. His Greek business manager (played with cosmopolitan sleaziness by Michael Gambon) fails to get funding from a Saudi princeling; his wealthy, semi-estranged wife Eleanor (a jaded but regal Anjelica Huston) is disinclined to invest any more of her parents' fortune. Fortunately for the venture, who should appear but Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a Kentucky pilot who may or may not be Zissou's son from a 30-year-old assignation. Ned is invited to join Team Zissou, and in short order pledges the inheritance from his dead mother to the jaguar shark expedition.
In the course of the voyage, Team Zissou will steal oceanographic equipment and an espresso machine from Zissou's far more successful competitor Alistair Hennessy (a wonderfully self-regarding Jeff Goldblum); Zissou and Ned will both fall for a pregnant reporter (played by a pregnant Cate Blanchett) tagging along for a magazine story; pirates will attack the ship and kidnap a member of the team; a daring rescue will be undertaken; and the jaguar shark will be encountered once again, though not until after Zissou has run out of dynamite.
The Life Aquatic, in other words, contains a great deal more activity and adventure than Anderson's previous films. Yet, if anything, its pace is more sedate. This is partly because it is his longest movie to date, clocking in at just under two hours. But it is also because as his boyish protagonists have grown older, their metabolisms--and those of the movies themselves--have been slowing down. Where Bottle Rocket and Rushmore are propelled by the ardor and energy of youth, Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic are characterized more by an air of wistfulness and regret. The evolution is reflected in Anderson's musical choices. In Tenenbaums, the furious British Invasion chords of Rushmore gave way to a coy cover of "Hey Jude." The Life Aquatic continues this progression toward a kind of languid irony, its soundtrack consisting largely of acoustic versions of David Bowie songs, sung in Portuguese by Brazilian musician Seu Jorge.
Casting, too, contributes to The Life Aquatic's peculiar lethargy. In Tenenbaums, Gene Hackman brought infectious enthusiasm and angry undercurrents to the role of Royal. Murray's Zissou, by contrast, is typically laid back, a wry and rather downbeat observer of his own life passing him by. While Murray's drowsy comic gifts are frequently used to delightful effect--is there any actor alive who's better at underplaying a punch line?--they're unable to provide the film with much in the way of forward momentum.