The problem with The Life Aquatic reveals itself quite clearly in the final act, as the cast all gives Bill Murray shoulder squeezes of support. The scene is supposed to mean something profound. It’s Murray confronting not just his Moby Dick (a quest for vengeance lost in the film, maybe because they knew it was a silly idea as a major plot point), but also himself. His mortality, his place in the world, you know, the yada yada. And it is the yada yada, because the viewer isn’t watching Murray’s character confront himself, he or she is watching Murray play a character confronting himself. The Life Aquatic manages to create a particular suspension of disbelief–the little stop motion undersea creatures are exquisite and fully part of the film’s reality–but it never manages to convince (or even try to convince) the viewer he or she isn’t watching a construct. A hipster event picture. It’s a great hipster event picture, maybe the best (since who makes decent hipster pictures except Anderson), but there’s no depth to it. It’s a fake.
The Life Aquatic wasn’t expensive by Hollywood standards–it was pretty cheap actually, considering the cast, effects and water shooting–but it’s a huge Wes Anderson picture. There are action scenes–Anderson’s pretty good at them too, incorporating both his self-aware style as well as the action scene necessities. There are huge sets–Mark Friedberg’s production design–is wonderful. There’s always something to look at in The Life Aquatic, which is good, because the film frequently gets boring.
Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach think swearing is funny. Swearing can be funny and some of the swear-based jokes in Life Aquatic are okay (they don’t get belly-laughs, but they’re okay), but they rely on them all the time. Or uncomfortable situations. It’s like Anderson sat down and watched the trailers to Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums and thought he should make a feature-length trailer. There’s not an honest human moment in the entire film, as the actors deliver their lines to the camera, not to each other. Owen Wilson–who really should have co-wrote the picture instead of acted in it–is the worst. His Kentucky fish out of water is an affected performance, with the whole hook being him being Owen Wilson acting in another Wes Anderson movie. None of his scenes are bad, but seeing him opposite Willem Dafoe, who hurls himself head first into his role as an insecure German crew member, is painful. Dafoe pushes through to the other side with his performance, while Wilson’s happy with staying celluloid.
After Dafoe, Cate Blanchett gives the film’s second-best performance, even though she has little to do… watching Blanchett act–even in a shallow character–is great. Murray’s fine, so is Anjelica Huston. Jeff Goldblum’s okay, playing the standard post-Jurassic Park Goldblum standard. Bud Cort’s got a great small part.
The Life Aquatic is a frustrating film. As filmmaking, it’s masterful and exciting. As a fiction, it’s a complete waste of time. There’s more insight into the human condition in mediocre fortune cookies.