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Wes Anderson takes you to a bubbly comic adventure in The Life Aquatic ... but haven't we been here before?

by Eric Allen Hatch/Baltimore City Paper

The key to understanding director Wes Anderson's sense of humor comes from 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." Afterwards, the friends hatch energetically plotted criminal schemes--interrupted by periodic, persistent battles with depression, lethargy and boredom. Reconsidering most of the main characters in Anderson's subsequent features--1998's deservedly beloved Rushmore and 2001's less-deservedly-so The Royal Tenenbaums--they all 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--so much so that Anderson has hit a rut. Aquatic's 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--and with Aquatic, they've been positively strip-mined.

Aquatic begins with a film-festival presentation of the latest oceanographic adventure film from Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), who's made his living shooting such films--despite his elementary-school understanding of the subject. Zissou's latest work, however, ends with a tragic cliff-hanger: the violent death of one of Zissou's crew members to a beast Zissou dubs the "Jaguar Shark." During a laconic post-screening Q&A, Zissou pledges to hunt down the chimeric creature.

For this quest, Zissou's crew includes old faithfuls like uber-blasé spouse Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) and loyal-to-the-point-of-barely-contained-homoerotic-passion sidekick Klaus (Willem Dafoe). But new additions for this ride include airline co-pilot and possible Zissou-spawn Ned (Owen Wilson), as well as outdoorsy journalist Jane (Cate Blanchett), both of whom grew up members of Zissou's fan club.

The actual state of affairs chez Zissou quickly becomes abundantly clear. For starters, Zissou may not have actually seen his white whale, and admits that he made up its name in a moment of confusion. Meanwhile, Klaus jealousy clashes with Ned, while the latter competes with his presumed papa for Jane's affections. Furthermore, the entire operation squeaks along underfunded and understaffed--facts underscored by financing-company accountant Bill (Harold and Maude's Bud Cort), Zissou's wealthy competitor (and Eleanor's ex) Alistair (Jeff Goldblum) and ... pirates.

Anderson infuses a certain amount of cinematic magic into all his work, buoyed by impeccable casting, set design (crucial here) and song selection. Indeed, while Aquatic's score (provided, as usual, by Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh) supplies abundant charm, superior aural running commentary for the film comes from Seu Jorge (City of God's Knockout Ned), who performs--onscreen--bossa-fied Portuguese versions of David Bowie songs. Jorge's presence serves exactly the same purpose as that of Jonathan Richman in There's Something About Mary; while arguably derivative, Anderson's use of Jorge is undeniably smooth.

Unfortunately, Anderson's magic no longer complements his narratives and characters so much as it compensates and covers up for them, adding a thin veneer of sophistication to otherwise shallow proceedings. Aquatic's plot is fun, wacky, and threadbare, in similar proportions to an Airplane! film. Murray and Owen Wilson turn in predictably funny performances, but they're trumped here by Dafoe, Goldblum and Cort's supporting roles. The two female leads, Blanchett and Huston, feel exceedingly flat--the blame for which goes not to their earnest performances, but to a script that consistently hands them the short end of the stick.

And what should we make of the fact that for the first time, Anderson has co-written his script not with Owen Wilson, but with Noah Baumbach? Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming does suggest a kindred spirit, but these so-so results beg for the return of (the old, quirky) Wilson--or at least a few months of revisions.

Don't worry about the jokes--Aquatic delivers plenty of them, some very funny. But based on Aquatic's flimsy plotting and Anderson's increasingly interchangeable characters, worry instead about the depth of the director's future creative output. So far, each Wes Anderson film has provided viewing experiences far superior to those of your typical Hollywood comedy. However, with Tenenbaums, the margin by which that was true slipped a rung--and with Aquatic, it's taken a debilitating tumble. Anderson needs to diversify his bag of tricks, ASAP--unless he wants to exhaust audiences' good will by cycling them through the same dreary spirals of ennui he does his characters.