I picture Wes Anderson when he was a kid getting a Rubik's Cube for Christmas.
He'd twist it into all sorts of colorful patterns, unique in their design, and he'd snicker at his own cleverness. He'd show a few of his friends, and maybe they'd laugh, too.
But he'd never solve the thing. That would be too predictable. Or maybe he never COULD solve it.
Now filmmaking is Anderson's game. The writer-director of "Bottle Rocket," "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" adds a fourth film to his indie-chic catalog. Like his previous efforts, "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" is vibrant, quirky and a total meaningless mess.
Who better to star in Anderson's latest ode to ironic hipsterism than Bill Murray, the patron saint of the form. Murray portrays Steve Zissou, a renowned (though fading) oceanographer whose most recent documentary, "Adventure No. 12: The Jaguar Shark," was marred by the fact the subject ate his seafaring partner. Zissou and his team decide to hunt down the predator.
He's asked, "What would be the scientific purpose of killing it?"
"Revenge," he responds.
They're joined by Ned (Owen Wilson), an Air Kentucky pilot who believes Zissou may be his father. Also tagging along is a pregnant journalist (Cate Blanchett), who both men seem to be romantically drawn toward.
Throw in Filipino pirates, kidnappings, a three-legged dog and a lot of well-known actors taking bit roles, and you've got "The Life Aquatic."
There's been no shortage of movies lately that stress condescending hipsterism over such luxuries as plot, emotion or momentum. (The overpraised "Napoleon Dynamite" comes to mind.) While some viewers may be amused by the sense of superiority it grants them, I'd rather spend two hours with characters I care about.
Therein lies the fundamental problem with Anderson: He is unable, or unwilling, to build any sincere connection to his characters. When they are hurt or killed, we feel nothing because they don't seem to exist in the first place.
Anderson's lack of focus is astonishing. It doesn't help that the story (co-written with Noah Baumbach) starts off as a kind of "Moby Dick"-type quest with Zissou in the Capt. Ahab role. Murray spends many scenes lamenting the loss of his slain friend. But midway through, the pursuit is all but abandoned, with Murray not giving a second thought to the death. It's almost like Anderson got bored with the idea and decided to follow arbitrary plot lines that were springing up around him.
Still, after sitting through "Life Aquatic," I've come to the realization that Anderson is a singular talent.
He knows how to construct a bizarre environment. He's comfortable with his camera and the other technical tricks of filmmaking. The soundtracks in his movies are always memorable -- in this case it's comprised solely of Portuguese acoustic versions of David Bowie songs. Is that supposed to represent something? I wouldn't bet on it.
More than anything else, "Life Aquatic" looks like no other movie. From its amazing cross-section set of Zissou's ship, to the oddball digital animation used to bring an array of garish sea creatures to life, the picture is always entertaining to watch.
If Anderson can ever focus on actually making a MOVIE -- instead of proving how "zany" he is -- the man may create something of lasting value. Otherwise, he's just spinning in place ... like an unfinished Rubik's Cube.