The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

I'm of the opinion that Wes Anderson's films represent a sort of cinematic law of diminishing returns: as each budget gets bigger, and as Anderson's cult following gets larger, his work becomes less interesting.

To wit: Bottle Rocket was thoroughly original and charming; Rushmore was cute, if inconsequential; The Royal Tenenbaums was a bloated snooze. So it was with low expectations that I went into The Life Aquatic. Happily, it's a funnier, livelier film than its predecessor, and thanks to a surprisingly earnest performance by Owen Wilson (for once, not cowriting the screenplay with Anderson), it earns its pathos.

Set apparently during the early 1970s, The Life Aquatic is an anecdotal look at an American Jacques Cousteau (Bill Murray, going back to the anti-authoritarian slacker character that made him a star in movies like Stripes and Ghostbusters) and his ragtag crew of untrained scientists and documentary filmmakers. When a young man claiming to be his bastard son (Wilson) shows up, it throws his concentration off his Moby Dick-like hunt for the "jaguar shark" that ate his partner. The presence of a nosy journalist (Cate Blanchett, sporting an odd Britishy accent) doesn't help.

Anderson seems to like pacing many of his scenes in a stilted manner. This is risky, because if the audience doesn't fill those awkward pauses with laughter, the movie becomes less and less enjoyable as it trudges on. Which is what happened when I saw it on Christmas night. Granted, most of the crowd might have been wiped out after the day's festivities, but there were clearly lots of jokes in the film that people either didn't get or just didn't find funny.

I was amused, but that's about all I can give it. Still, The Life Aquatic grew on me after a while, especially whenever it woke up from its laid-back comedy to run off on a zany bit of adventure (which is what made Bottle Rocket work so well). So I wound up liking it more in the end than I did during its first draggy half. And I have to hand it to Anderson (and his cowriter Noah Baumbach) for creating a gaggle of memorable characters. (Willem Dafoe is especially funny as a whiny German crew member.) Nevertheless, I'm getting tired of his "Because it would be wacky!" style of filmmaking. I love wacky, but in Anderson's case it's starting to come off as just self-conscious.