THE LIFE AQUATIC Wes Anderson and the gang are at it again.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
dir. Anderson
Open Sat Dec 25
Various Theaters

Around this time every year, film critics inevitably start making lists and grand proclamations. "The best picture of the year!" "The front-runner for the Oscars!" "An astounding tour de force from [insert star/director here]!" But despite all the pseudo-educated, name-dropping cinema talk, whether or not a film gets a good review largely comes down to the same simple rule that applies to any other sort of critic, or any other viewer, really: Whether the critic liked it or not.

So I guess I could do the stereotypical critic thing with Wes Anderson's latest, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. I could declare that I think it's the best picture of the year. I could insist that it's Wes Anderson's best film yet--even better than Bottle Rocket, or Rushmore, or The Royal Tenenbaums. I could say that it's very nearly perfect, and it should be seen by all, and be beloved in the hearts of everyone, and... what else? Oh, right--I'm sure it's deserving of some inconsequential statuette or something.

But even though I feel that way, I'm not going to fall into that tempting trap. Instead, I'll just say this: I liked The Life Aquatic the most out of anything else I've seen this year--and maybe for even longer than that.

A lot of that "like" is thanks to a character who should be thoroughly unlikable. An aura of failure follows around 52-year-old Steve Zissou (Bill Murray); an aura as obvious as his bright red Jacques Cousteau-style knit cap. It's been nine years since Zissou made his last hit documentary about his undersea adventures, and Zissou's a laughingstock amongst colleagues, an albatross around the neck of his wife, Eleanor (Angelica Huston), and an easy target for his oily, pretentious nemesis, Alistair Hennessy (Jeff Goldblum). Even Zissou's claims that his longtime sidekick was eaten by an unknown sea monster--Zissou dubs it a "jaguar shark"--are written off as the contrived inventions of a desperate filmmaker.

But Zissou figures he's got some adventure left in him, and decides to take his ship, the Belafonte, and head off with Team Zissou--a crew of colleagues/filmmakers, who at different points, wear matching Speedos, red knit caps, or pajamas--to kill the jaguar shark. But before setting sail, Zissou's tracked down by Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), an earnest young pilot for Air Kentucky who may or may not be Zissou's son.

Also along for the questionably intended voyage is Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), a reporter chronicling Zissou's downfall, and a nebbish bond company stooge (Bud Cort) who aims to keep the oft-immoral Zissou on budget and on track. And so the Belafonte sets sail, aiming to find the possibly imaginary jaguar shark, steal equipment from Hennessy, and probably get attacked by pirates.

Life Aquatic is hysterical throughout, and on the surface it seems like Anderson has chosen escapism over depth--the dialogue is quick and sharp; montages of Ned adjusting to sea life are set to Devo; Anderson's Technicolored visual palette charges forward in a giddy sort of overdrive. But just when you think that Life Aquatic is merely an excellently conceived and executed comedy, the film delivers some unexpectedly emotional sucker punches. Like Anderson's previous films, Life Aquatic takes a dark premise--present are Anderson's usual themes of strained father/son relationships, public failure, and cynical self-realization--and gracefully twists it into humor. Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach infuse even the funniest dialogue with a subtle melancholy and a sneaky sort of character development; while you think you're just laughing along with the characters, it's a welcome shock when you're hit with how deeply you care for them.

Life Aquatic's cast deserves a lot of credit for that also. Murray, like no other actor, can portray characters who are both complete assholes and inexplicably sympathetic. Like his part in Rushmore, this is a perfect Murray role, and yet more proof that he's the best comedic actor around. Owen adopts a not quite successful Southern drawl as the naíve Ned; desperately looking at a failing old man and trying to see a father, Ned could have been a paper-thin foil, yet instead becomes one of the film's most identifiable and funny characters. Blanchett handles her role with both a sexy confidence and a wounded realism as she watches Zissou, her childhood idol, flail about in absurdly comic catastrophe. And Willem Dafoe--who plays Klaus, Zissou's German ex-bus driver colleague who bewilderingly views Zissou as a father figure--steals every scene he's in.

A character in and of itself, the well-worn, well-loved Belafonte is filmed as an extraordinary cross-section set, with Anderson tracking characters through rooms and peeking in through barnacle-encrusted portholes. And the stylized look doesn't stop there--Henry Selick, the stop-motion animation genius behind The Nightmare Before Christmas, populates Anderson's world with dreamlike creatures, from crabs striped like candy canes to rhinestone-covered fishes. And a gentle score from Mark Mothersbaugh is paired with the warm, off-putting guitar of Seu Jorge (who adapts David Bowie standards into Portuguese while strumming away on the Belafonte's deck) and anachronistic keyboard instrumentals from Sven Libaek.

There are weaknesses in Life Aquatic, minor though they may be. Huston essentially reprises her role from Tenenbaums, and her character doesn't bring much to this particular fable. There's not nearly enough of Dafoe's Klaus, nor Selick's animation, nor Goldblum. And the film's tone is at times so akin to Rushmore or Tenenbaums that one wonders if we'll ever be lucky enough to see Anderson truly go out on a limb.

But it's a rare film where most of the complaints greedily bemoan the lack of even more great things--or that it's too good of an example of a filmmaker's inimitable style. Aside from being the most euphoric and surprisingly deep film of the year, it certainly deserves greater recognition and... ah, fuck it. I just like it. A lot. In this season of grandiose film and even more portentous film writing, take that for what you will. As for me, I'm already trying to figure out where I can score a red knit cap.