Aging never quite suits the characters in the comedies of Wes Anderson, the reigning auteur of arrested development: They're either too precocious for youth, like Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore, or too old for their youthful precociousness, like the Tenenbaum children in The Royal Tenenbaums. And once they're past middle age, like Gene Hackman in Tenenbaums or Bill Murray in Rushmore and the new The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, life's disappointments have grown so numerous and profound that they don't even bother to shave anymore. With The Life Aquatic, a mopey meta-comedy about growing old and making movies, the 35-year-old Anderson suggests the melancholia of directors twice his age, though he's a mere four films into a bright and promising career. There's always been an undercurrent of sadness in Anderson's work, but never has it been more pronounced, and never has it served as such a heavy anchor to the delicate, whimsical hijinks on the surface. Like its weary hero, the film sometimes seems sapped of energy, even defeated, in spite of moments as vibrant and magical as any movie this year.
Still the boy with the snappiest model train set on the block, Anderson casts Murray as a long-in-the-tooth Jacques Cousteau surrogate who still manages his devoted crew on an antiquated ship that looks like a scrupulously designed Barbie Dream House. Less devoted to science than to show, Murray and the rest of Team Zissou—including his wife Anjelica Huston, German deckmate Willem Dafoe, bond-company stooge Bud Cort, free interns from the University Of Northern Alaska, and a guy who sings David Bowie tunes in Portuguese, among others—have fallen on hard times, as audiences for their documentaries have dwindled. After a "jaguar shark" kills his right-hand man on an expedition, Murray and his men take to the seas in search of revenge, though financiers balk at the mission. The production gets kick-started when Owen Wilson, who may or may not be Murray's grown son, offers his inheritance money, but their adventures meet many obstacles, all noted in painful detail by accompanying journalist Cate Blanchett.
With its story about a filmmaker nearing the end of his creative life, plagued by middling reviews, wary backers, and the threat of mutiny from the crew, The Life Aquatic seems odd coming from the most acclaimed young comedic director of his generation. But Anderson has a strong emo streak, which surfaces in Murray's broken relationships—with his wife, who was once married to his arch-nemesis (Jeff Goldblum); with his would-be son, whom he never knew; with Dafoe, who worships him like a spurned lapdog; and with Blanchett, who resists his tired advances. For a movie so consumed by colorful and frivolous touches, The Life Aquatic breathes a heavy sigh of resignation, though the beautiful ending goes a long way toward justifying all that navel-gazing. Mostly, the film delights with its scrupulous minor details: The pastel animated sea life, the onboard dolphin "scouts" that have never lived up to their billing, and the hilariously second-rate action sequences, which look like they were staged by Rushmore's Max Fischer Players. Even when caught in a rut, Anderson's obsessive vision still yields many exhilarating surprises.