Writing a synopsis for a Wes Anderson movie is like trying to catch the wind in a bucket: you can attempt it for hours and end up with little more than fresh air and a headache. Yes, The Life Aquatic is about a Jacques Cousteau-style explorer seeking a striped shark who chowed down on his best bud. But that could be a pitch for Jaws V: Bite Back. Little can convey the texture of the Texan writer/director's fourth feature, other than to say it is unmistakably Andersonian, as off-kilter and tricksy as The Royal Tenenbaums.
Not that everyone loved that critically-praised tale of moping in Manhattan, finding it - to come over all Cahiers Du Cinèma for a moment - a bit too bloody kooky for its own good. Too knowing, too self-consciously clever; precise and smart, sure, but a little condescending. And Aquatic could be attacked on all those points, too. Anderson's tweaked, parallel universe puts immediate barriers between itself and the audience. It's slyly cartoonish and it's hard to submerge yourself in a story, to commit emotion to it, when you can see it so clearly being told. When Zissou's ship is introduced the camera gazes at a cutaway of the hull, gliding from room to room as it observes the participants. It is formal, theatrical and potentially distancing - almost like the chalk-drawn buildings of Dogville; Lars von Trier shooting The Poseidon Adventure. Some viewers will delight in its daring; others will be immediately irritated. You either buy it or you don't. Want a quick, pre-viewing test? Okay. Zissou's ship is called... The Belafonte. Grinning? Then you're halfway there. Scratching your head? Then it may well be red raw by the time the credits roll.
But unlike Tenenbaums - which sent highbrow critics gaga with its echoes of JD Salinger's Glass family chronicles - there's only the faintest whiff of intellectual elitism here. For while many of us are unfamiliar with Franny And Zooey, there's something universal about the sight of a blank-faced Bill Murray doing slinky-hipped dancing to the music piped into his diving helmet. Aquatic just has a particular sensibility: funny peculiar and funny ha-ha. And, appearing in virtually every scene, Murray is superb - the rock on which Anderson builds an incredible ensemble. Cate Blanchett, an actress so severe it was doubtful she could `do' comedy, is perfect as the plummy hack trying to boost Zissou's profile; Owen Wilson is the closest his permanently amused looks will ever allow to sincerity. Anjelica Huston largely smokes cigarillos stony-faced, but forces truth through the film's irony by the sheer power of her presence - nowhere more so than when imparting a crucial fact to Blanchett or receiving Murray's confession: "I know I haven't been at my best this past decade." There are too few of these moments for The Life Aquatic to be truly great - the pirates shoot-'em-up sequence is overlong and alienating, its flippant violence undermining the attempts at pathos in the third act - but the movie is something to be cherished. And the joy is likely to be in the detail, when rewatching will reveal the layers of jokes - whether it be wry amusement at the antiquated equipment Zissou's '70s throwbacks use, or the incidental dialogue. "Esteban was eaten," yells a blood-flecked Murray in one of the film-within-a-film clips. "Is he dead?" enquires Willem Dafoe's needy crew member ("Calm, collected... German").
There is also one of the all-time great soundtracks, with Brazilian crew member Seu Jorge (City Of God) crooning David Bowie tracks in Portuguese as a lilting, ethereal commentary on events. Adding to the magic air are the aquatic creatures created by the stop-motion animation of Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas), one of which provides the picture's defining emotional moment. Because, for all the drollery, Aquatic is touching. It's about people trying to connect and how perceptions affect reality; it's about forgiveness and regret and growing old and dealing with our mistakes. "Why didn't you contact me?" asks Wilson of his putative pop. "Because I hate fathers and I never wanted to be one," replies Murray. This moment is reality, again, peeking through the irony. It jars a little, because it is raw. Anderson is dealing with universal, human issues through the filter of his skewed sense of humour. It's hard to claim The Life Aquatic as a sure-fire heartwarmer. But emotions arechurned under the smirks and if your attention ever drifts you should focus on Murray's implacable face. Still, but inexplicably moving.
Sentimental without being soggy, quirky without being smug, this oceanic adventure is bracing, original and funny. A work of peculiar genius.