The Life Aquatic

Steve Zissou is a man who’s not easy to love. The renowned oceanographer and hack filmmaker at the center of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou may have the grizzled look of an old salt, but his attitude is more reminiscent of a sulky teenager who can dish it out better than he can take it. Consistently gruff with his family, crew, and strangers alike, Zissou nevertheless expects kid-glove treatment in return, whether it’s requesting that his wife not be so matter-of-fact when telling him how his cat just died or whining that a reporter whom he prodded into a rage subsequently hurt his feelings.

As the journalist says later: “That’s so…effed up.”

Fans of Wes Anderson may feel the same way about the director’s strange new flick, his fourth after the widely celebrated Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums. Promoted as being in the same quirky spirit as its predecessors, The Life Aquatic is a surprise—though not exactly a pleasant one. Whereas each of Anderson’s first three projects had a streak or two of melancholy, his latest aims for a much deeper black. Or you at least think it does. Sometimes.

The crux of The Life Aquatic is a Moby Dick story: After Zissou (Bill Murray) loses one of his men to a so-called jaguar shark, he sets out to hunt down and kill the animal. (“What would be the scientific purpose of killing it?” Zissou is asked. “Revenge,” he replies, after a pause and a shrug.) Because his last few documentaries—projects as laughably stilted as grade-school film strips—were failures, Zissou’s current expedition is launched with precarious funding and diminishing faith from his benefactors, fans, and crew. When even his wife and business partner, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), decides that his quest is too crazy and returns to land, Zissou’s impending breakdown is staved off only by his budding relationship with Ned (Owen Wilson), whom Zissou invited to join his crew after learning that the Kentucky-bred pilot might be his son.

If only Wilson had traded in his onscreen appearance for his usual writing credit. After having Wilson help out with the scripts of his first three films, Anderson co-wrote The Life Aquatic with Mr. Jealousy screenwriter Noah Baumbach. The result is a tone that’s as uneven as Wilson’s Southern accent, with characters whose oddness—perhaps to offset Zissou’s cantankerousness—is forced to the point of preciousness. Willem Dafoe plays Klaus, a thick-accented and thin-skinned German crew member who feels hurt whenever Zissou doesn’t pay him enough attention. Robyn Cohen’s intern, Anne-Marie Sakowitz, walks around topless, while Cate Blanchett is a pregnant, squeaky-voiced reporter who refuses to swear. And Brazilian musician Seu Jorge is Pelé, the expedition’s alleged safety expert, who doesn’t do much more than perform acoustic, Portuguese interpretations of David Bowie songs. It’s all fitfully amusing, but the cues to laugh will usually seem stronger than your desire to.

The look of the movie is also unrelentingly whimsical, from the red balled beanies and matching Speedos (the full-body suits, not the teeny blush-inducers) the crew wears to a dollhouse pan of the ship’s unexpectedly posh rooms, which include a giant gourmet kitchen, a library, and a spa with whirlpool and masseuse. Again, most of it smacks of trying too hard, but to be fair, Anderson’s bits of magic realism are lovely: Animatronic, Crayola-colored sea creatures make regular appearances, and a nighttime scene of a beach awash with electric jellyfish is a sight nearly intoxicating enough to explain why these people are so devoted to the life aquatic to begin with.

But Zissou’s desperate unhappiness keeps crashing against the movie’s orchestrated fancies. Murray’s deadpan-crank schtick initially elicits a few chuckles, as Zissou rolls his eyes at overenthusiastic autograph-seekers or introduces Ned with “This is probably my son.” But his character’s bitterness and insecurity soon outweigh his sarcasm, and Anderson and Baumbach don’t exactly have the tragicomic touch: “I hate fathers and I never wanted to be one!” Zissou says at one point. Later, he asks his weary crew, “Do you all not like me anymore?” In between, pirates attack his ship, in a sequence that’s sometimes violent, sometimes slapsticky, and completely puzzling.

The Royal Tenenbaums–ish gist of The Life Aquatic—that even a crushing midlife crisis can be overcome by sharing your life with others—does become more deeply felt toward the movie’s end. And for a few moving scenes, Anderson even forgets about cramming in idiosyncracies and lets relatable emotion take over as a poetically directed tragedy is followed by a bittersweet success that’s witnessed by the entire crew, elbow to elbow in a tiny pod. But it’s not nearly enough to conjure the wistfulness of the director’s previous films—or to overcome the quirkiness that has become less a trademark of Anderson’s than a crutch. These days, it seems, Steve Zissou isn’t the only man who’s not easy to love.

Vodka Lemon’s absurdities, by contrast, are so slight that they barely register. Paris-based Kurdish director Hiner Saleem cuts his delicate film about a post-Soviet Armenian village with lightly comic sight gags, but more noticeable is the almost oppressive quietude.

The film’s laconic, ironic first line is “Darling, everything is fine.” It’s spoken by widower Hamo (Romen Avinian), kneeling in the snow at his wife’s grave and updating her on the events of the day. Of course, everything isn’t really fine, as we soon discover. A frantically awaited phone call—witnessed, it seems, by the entire village—informs Hamo that his son has sent him a package from Paris. When he treks out to the post office on a broken-down motorbike to find only a letter, some pictures, and no money, the apparent slight breaks the struggling Hamo’s heart—as well as those of the neighbors who have lined up for a handout.

When Hamo goes back to the grave the next day, he shows his wife—or, rather, her creepily etched portrait—the pictures and notes that prove their son “is not very nice.” He wishes for a return to Communism, when everyone seemed to be prospering. Nowadays, Hamo is forced to sell off his possessions to survive, always taking a price much lower than he initially fights for. And he’s not the only one in financial straits: On Hamo’s daily trips to the cemetery, he notices Nina (Lala Sarkissian), a widow who racks up IOUs with the bus driver and is about to lose her job at the liquor shack that carries the movie’s titular libation.

Christophe Pollock’s white-on-gray cinematography alone is enough to justify the town’s love of drink. It’s hard to believe that this unnamed village is inhabitable: There are barely any buildings to cut the no man’s land of snow and sky, and the one local road is so infrequently driven that travelers carry along mats to sit on should their transportation break down or the bus not come. The Vodka Lemon, the only retail that’s shown, is a fragile oddity, a fruit stand in the middle of the middle of nowhere. Paying a visit is likely a more economical way to stay warm than paying the gas bill—and much easier than another village pastime: dragging large pieces of furniture through the snow.

A little romance never hurts in the warmth department, either, and a hesitant one slooowly develops between Hamo and Nina as they ride the bus together. At first, their furtive glances seem coy; eventually, their refusal to even say even hello to each other becomes maddeningly inexplicable. As written by Saleem and co-scripters Lei Dinety and Pauline Gouzenne, Nina is practically a mute, both with Hamo as well as with her pianist-turned-hooker daughter. Though some interactions go poetically unspoken, others—such as when Nina’s sitting with her daughter after learning she’s about to be fired and they both start laughing—seem too prosaic even for this setting.

Toward the end of its leisurely 90 minutes, the movie begins bouncing randomly between its little dramas, including Hamo’s granddaughter’s getting married off for her family’s financial gain, an attempted murder, and Hamo’s constant attempts to sell his belongings. Despite a magical end note and its sporadic humor, Vodka Lemon leaves you briefly forlorn—but with none of its stories developed very deeply, not even the melancholy will stay with you after the credits roll. CP