I haven't been 100% thrilled with Wes Anderson's work. I rather liked Rushmore, but The Royal Tenenbaums left me more annoyed than thrilled. Despite some excellent performances and clever ideas (it's basically a surreal, Salingeresque romp among an eccentric New York family), Tenenbaums felt self-indulgently cutesy rather than deep or purposeful. The Life Aquatic received very mixed reviews on its initial release, and I was prepared for more "too cute to care" filmmaking.
I am delighted to report that The Life Aquatic is a surprisingly generous film anchored (no pun intended) by Bill Murray's beautifully understated performance as a fading, Cousteau-like oceanographer and documentarian. Murray has an extraordinary gift for playing aging stars (he single-handedly saved Lost In Translation from dissolving into its own self-pleasure), and here he manages the difficult task of portraying a very famous man who is by turns acerbic and charming, self-effacing and self-indulgent, pompous and pigheaded and childish and wise - often in the same scene. You can see and feel the ravages of time in both his eyes and the way he steps back and observes the dramas unfolding around him. He's grieving the loss of both his best friend (eaten by an unknown sea creature he refers to as a "Jaguar Shark,") and his wife (Anjelica Huston), who has left him (possibly to return to her ex, a wealthy and sleazy oceanographic rival played with smarmy enthusiasm by Jeff Goldblum).
Much has been made of the surreal, candy-colored world of The Life Aquatic, and the film is a joy to behold. Anderson makes no attempt to depict anything like a real undersea film; this is a production designer's wet dream, a phantasmic, crazy-quilt world of childhood dreams and adult disillusion. Yet through it all Anderson manages to maintain a warm edge to the procedings; even at it's most outrageous (a violent pirate attack and a deadpan Special Ops-style rescue) you never lose your attachment to the characters.
The Life Aquatic is too bizarre and quirky for me to recommend it without qualification, and I can already predict which of my friends would like it and which ones wouldn't (and no, I won't say). The film has some very funny lines and situations; let's not forget that Murray is a deadpan comic genius. If you have a high tolerance for the oddball, this one is definitely worth your time and energy.