Another quirkfest from Wes Anderson (Rushmore, Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tannenbaums), this film has some of the most imaginatively charming images on screen this year, especially a tiny rainbow-striped seahorse and a cutaway side view of a ship that is as delightfully cluttered as a dollhouse conceived by Joseph Cornell. And it has Anderson’s trademark oddball characters from a mix of cultures, all speaking in his trademark corkscrew speech and reacting as though no two of them speak the same language.
He’s great with situations, visuals, and deadpan delivery of weird, almost absurd, dialogue. He’s a little too fond of weird names: Oseary Drakoulias and Esteban du Plantier are not as witty or engaging as he would like to think. Anderson is terrific with juxtapositions — no one else would fill a soundtrack with David Bowie songs performed bossa nova style in Portuguese. But increasingly, it all seems to be tricks without any meaning or insight behind them, cleverness for the sake of cleverness, without any heart or soul. Or art. College students can deconstruct to their hearts’ delight, but it’s their own meaning they will bring to the movie, not Anderson’s.
It’s the story of a Jacques Cousteau-like explorer named Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), who finances his expeditions by filming them. He has not had a successful movie in nine years. His wife (Anjelica Huston) strides around chain-smoking and making bitter comments. She maintains a flirty relationship with her bisexual ex-husband, istair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), who happens to be Zissou’s rival.
Zissou’s new mission is not about science; it is about revenge. He wants to kill the “jaguar shark” that killed his friend. His motley crew includes the high strung Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe) and some newcomers: Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a naval officer with the drawl of a riverboat gambler who could be Zissou’s son, Bill Ubell (Bud Cort from Harold and Maude), assigned to watch over them by the bond company, and Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), an intrepid English journalist who happens to be six months pregnant. Steve and Ned go off in their run-down ship and end up engaging with pirates, stealing equipment from Hennesey, and developing a romantic rivalry for Jane.
Anderson benefits tremendously from the always-engaging production design by Mark Friedberg, a delightful score by former Devo-ian Mark Mothersbaugh, and the always-engaging performances by top-notch actors clearly enjoying themselves, especially Goldblum, Dafoe, and Blanchett. But the script, by Anderson and Noah Baumbach takes some bad turns in the last half hour that feel sour and unsatisfying. But Anderson is getting close to Emperor’s New Clothes time here, and eventually someone is going to point out that when it comes to the substance, he has nothing on.
Parents should know that the movie includes very strong language, non-sexual nudity (topless sunbathing), and non-explicit sexual references and situations, including pregancy from an adulterous affair and bi-sexuality. Characters drink, smoke, and smoke marijuana. Characters behave badly in many ways, from being cruel to each other to stealing. Characters are in peril and there are violent encounters with deadly animals and various weapons, including guns. Some characters are killed.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Steve seemed more attached to his friend who was killed than to anyone else in his family or crew. What mattered to him? What mattered to Ned and Jane? What did it add to her character to have her pregnant?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Anderson’s other films, Rushmore, Bottle Rocket, and The Royal Tannenbaums. They might want to learn something about Jacques Coustou, whose voyages (and the movies about them) inspired this film.