It is the world premiere of the new documentary from Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), an accomplished deep sea diver and ocean expert who has made his celebrity with such films as he travels the world on his ship, the Belafonte. This is part one, cut short because of a tragedy: Zissou was diving with his longest serving companion Esteban (Seymour Cassel) when they were attacked by a huge, hitherto unknown species of fish which is Christened the "jaguar shark". Sadly, Esteban was eaten, but Zissou survived to make an announcement at the premiere, saying that part two of the documentary will feature him and his international crew hunting down the jaguar shark and killing it. When asked for the motive for this action against a possibly endangered species, the answer is given: "revenge".
Wes Anderson, who scripted The Life Aquatic with Noah Baumbach, made his name with films that are best described by that dreaded word, "quirky", and this effort was no exception. Nevertheless there was a distinctive humanity to his tales of dysfunctional families and damaged souls which raised him to a level above his contemporaries with his fans, but here it was clear that perhaps we had seen all Anderson had to offer, despite its exotic locations and gleaming camerawork. For those who couldn't see the appeal of Rushmore, or even those who thought The Royal Tenenbaums had been a step too far, this film held few surprises.
And to be fair it holds few surprises for those who had enjoyed those films as well, as was apparent when the characters were introduced through the opening twenty minutes. The most important of these to the storyline was Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), the son of a recently deceased woman who Zissou had had an affair with, so the awkward father/son relationship with echoes of Rushmore developed when the possibility of Ned being Zissou's long lost son emerged. Zissou is married to the chilly Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), an unhappy, childless marriage, so finds for the first time the prospect of fatherhood actually appeals to him.
Zissou is dependent on Eleanor's wealthy family for the funding for his trips, but the elderly Belafonte is already in need of repair. Wanting to spend his next mission in the pursuit of a fish he plans to kill proves an unpopular move, and pregnant English journalist Jane (Cate Blanchett) tags along for the ride, supposedly to do a puff piece on the explorer, but with more probing questions in mind. Meanwhile, Zissou is bonding with Ned and recruits him to the team, much to the jealousy of Klaus (Willem Dafoe), his second in command. As you can see, Anderson is not short of top acting talent offering their services, but you have to wonder if The Life Aquatic does them any justice.
Beyond acting, yes, quirky, and putting on accents and deadpan expressions when the weird stuff starts to happen, that is. Zissou's great rival is the better equipped Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), and when the search for the jaguar shark commences (during the commotion Zissou managed to place a tracking device on it to home in on) he makes for Hennessey's futuristic Sea Lab to raid it for supplies. And so the not as hilarious as you would want antics continue, seeing Ned and Zissou in a dispute over the love of Jane and bringing in action sequences when the Belafonte is attacked by pirates and one of the crew (Bud Cort) is kidnapped by them. Of course, it all ends with Zissou coming to terms with himself as man instead of a second rate Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and a would-be misty eyed final scene. But with every scene before it approached in the same straight faced "is this supposed to be funny or not?" manner, The Life Aquatic falls very flat, for all too many not encouraging the second viewing it needs to at least partly fall into place. Music by Mark Mothersbaugh.