I love Wes Anderson, but why? It turns out that most of what I love about his movies are the performances. Yes I love the OCD-level attention to detail, the composition, the soundtrack, and also the dialogue - one of my favorite things to do when I watch one of his films is to look in the corners of each frame - but when the movie is over, what I remember are the performances. The word "performance" seems appropriate here because there's nothing inherently natural about the worlds he creates - everything you see on screen has been meticulously considered, designed and set in place (hell, there's only one font). Which, consequently, leaves very little room for poetry.
The performances in The Life Aquatic are really what save this movie, which is remarkable in that most of the characters in it are only given one note to sustain for the duration - for example, Angelica Houston and Willem DeFoe give brilliant performances but have absolutely nothing to do and nowhere to go. Bill Murray is, of course, terrific - this movie was made for him and he knocks it out of the park, and his chemistry with Owen Wilson is rich, unforced, and quite beautiful to watch. Cate Blanchette is also quite good in a difficult role.
At this point, Wes has established his bag of tricks almost too rigidly - there are many long, difficult camera moves, there are crazy there are a lot of great songs on the soundtrack and they are all played loudly, there is the obligatory slow-motion shot at the coda. There are a few surprises in this movies, to be sure - boobies, profanity, explosions and a lot of charming stop-motion sea creatures - but ultimately it's not going to be mistaken for anything but a Wes Anderson movie.
Let me switch gears a minute here, because I can feel myself trying to write an intelligent review and everything's coming out all constipated and forced.
After the movie, Kath said she loved it. More tellingly, she said, "No matter which film of his I see, I can honestly say that I've never seen anything like it before." I'm not so sure I agree - this particular movie feels a lot like The Royal Tenenbaums but with a much bigger budget. But anyway, that's not the point - the point is that I was struggling to figure out how to talk about it, and the truth of the matter is that I really don't have much to say about it. It's a Wes Anderson movie, Bill Murray is absolutely fantastic, there's a lot of great dialogue and certainly this is a movie I'll want on DVD to examine in great detail. But ultimately, it's also a movie that I'll forget about after a while.
Clearly, Wes is talented and has a very clear vision. My worry is that his access to bigger budgets will lead him away from what makes his movies so charming - Rushmore and Bottle Rocket didn't need elaborate sets, they succeeded on the basis of having rich characters who had unfulfilled dreams. TLA is an extension of the excess of Royal Tenenbaums - big sets, tons of extraneous details - but largely one-dimensional characters.
I can certainly recommend this film to people who were going to see it anyway, but I'm not so sure that it will resonate with anyone who isn't already a willing audience.