Frankly, the movie just doesn’t work. It has a cast of madcap characters, and the plot is ridiculous enough, but the magic that existed in Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums just isn’t present here.
It’s not that I expect to laugh out loud at a Wes Anderson movie, though I often have, but I do expect to be amused. Only one scene of the film was truly amusing, a clip from an earlier movie made by Zissou in which the crew is performing cannonball dives into an ice bath when they hear and rescue a rare seal or something. But other than this, the films attempts at humor are transparent and therefore unfunny.
Bill Murray isn’t bad as Steve Zissou, but he just doesn’t display the charm that was present in Rushmore. Owen Wilson, who isn’t all that funny anyway, isn’t at all here, and his ridiculous Kentuckian accent is grating. Willem Dafoe is wasted, as is Cate Blanchett. And Seymour Cassel, who is present in all Anderson films, barely appears as Esteban, Zissou’s partner and friend who is killed by the mysterious Jaguar Shark.
Visually, the film is stunning. Zissou’s ship is constructed on a cutaway stage, so we can see a cross section of what it looks like inside. As one would expect from Anderson, the rust bucket is stocked with all forms of luxury, most noticeably a spa staffed by a masseuse. Though the underwater scenes are completely unbelievable, they are so stylized that it works.
Max makes Rushmore work. You root for him, you like him, you want him to succeed. And while Royal Tennenbaum is less likable than Max, you wish pretty much the same for him, and his redemption is at the heart of the movie. But I never really cared about Zissou at all. I didn’t dislike him, though he isn’t all that likable, I just didn’t care. And without a lead that can generate emotion from an audience, this film was doomed to mediocrity.
I didn’t think Wes Anderson could miss so badly. One day, when I get around to seeing The Darjeeling Limited, I hope I find this film was a misstep and not a trend.