The Life Aquatic plays like a wan redo of Anderson's previous film, The Royal Tenenbaums, which he co-wrote with Owen Wilson, who is now relegated only to the role of co-star. (Noah Baumbach, writer and director of Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy, has taken his place; the dry, distancing result suggests that Wilson may have been the heart, if not the brains, of the organization, dating back to their 1996 mini-masterpiece, Bottle Rocket.) Like its predecessor, The Life Aquatic concerns an egocentric father figure married to a character played by Anjelica Huston. This time, one Silverado star in love with Huston (Danny Glover) is swapped for another (Jeff Goldblum, here playing the main rival to Bill Murray's Steve Zissou). In Tenenbaums, though, Gene Hackman fought through the screenplay's wry cleverness to bring warmth, depth and humor to the character of Royal Tenenbaum.
Murray, as the ocean explorer who has run out of adventures, is no Hackman -- and here, he's barely a man at all. Steve Zissou is nearly as curmudgeonly as Royal, a crank who acts heroic only when he's in harm's way and is honest only when he runs out of lies. He's almost irredeemable, save for the fact that he's played by Murray, who manages to be lovable even when loathsome.
The journey upon which Zissou and his crew -- including Willem Dafoe as former bus driver Klaus and Noah Taylor as ex-substitute teacher Wolodarsky -- embark is more a series of detours than an adventure. For Anderson, though, it's always about what happens in the margins rather than the story itself; he's a footnotes man, the cinematic equivalent of authors David Foster Wallace or Dave Eggers, whose cutesy obsession with the fine print so distracts from the main action that you're tempted to put down their books.
What's most troubling and puzzling about Anderson is how lifeless his movies are becoming, even as they turn pretty as paintings. The more technically proficient Anderson gets as a filmmaker, the more emotionally barren his movies become. The Life Aquatic drowns in a sea of self-indulgent touches that delight the filmmaker but distance the filmgoer, who wants to love the director and his characters but can't anymore.