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Photo by Philippe Antonello

Watching a Wes Anderson movie is like taking an unguided tour of a brainy, slightly deranged imagination that’s simultaneously geeky-gauche and worldly-wise before its time. Anderson, who captured the loyalty of a similarly disposed demographic with his 1996 debut crime caper Bottle Rocket, came of artistic age with a bunch of other youngish filmmakers — Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, David O. Russell, Alexander Payne and Sofia Coppola prominent among them — whose movies seem to fly unmediated from their vaguely depressive, compulsively associative heads onto the screen. If their adamant refusal of linear narrative, psychological coherence and cinematic violence suggests a loose generational sensibility, the loony idiosyncrasy with which they stare into their own neurosis and outward into a confounding world refutes all labeling. Collectively they are the freshest thing to hit American cinema in decades, but individually their brand of crackpot subjectivity always teeters on the brink of impenetrability. The level of public bafflement and critical dissent over movies like Lost in Translation, Adaptation and most recently I Huckabees (all films I loved) suggests that sometimes it’s possible to dwell so far inside your own innovative mind that your brains fall out.

Such is the case with Wes Anderson’s new film, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, an overstuffed creature with its head stuck so far up its ass that it left me scratching my own, er, head. Co-written with his friend Noah Baumbach, who made the lively Kicking and Screaming and is currently adapting Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox with Anderson, The Life Aquatic draws its inspiration from the director’s long-standing obsession with the cult of French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, a notoriously swollen ego given to feuding with friends, colleagues and family alike. In the movie Bill Murray plays Steve Zissou, a washed-up oceanographer propelled by equally bloated proportions of self-regard and self-loathing, who pulls together a crew of quarrelsome kooks on a boat to make an epic documentary that will chronicle his efforts to settle scores with a jaguar shark (whatever that is) that ate his longtime partner, while upstaging a prosperous rival (Jeff Goldblum). When a gentlemanly young Kentucky pilot named Ned Plimpton, played by Anderson’s longtime collaborator Owen Wilson, shows up out of the blue, claiming to be Steve’s long-lost illegitimate son, Steve sees an opportunity to become the father he has always meant to be.

Feuding families, swelling paternal egos and oedipal messes run a thick fault line through Anderson’s work; he carries a cadre of actors with him from one film to the next, remodeling them in variations on their earlier roles. In Rushmore Murray played a tycoon trying to redeem poor parenting of his own sons by befriending schoolboy Jason Schwartzman, then competing with him for the affections of a pretty young teacher. And in The Royal Tenenbaums, while Murray settled for playing husband/father-figure to Gwyneth Paltrow, Gene Hackman took up the torch as the hopelessly incompetent patriarch of that family of angry and depressed geniuses. For all their meandering plot lines, both those wonderfully weird movies managed to cohere around a recognizable structure and a cast small enough not to overwhelm Anderson’s underlying themes.

The Life Aquatic is a potentially great little cult picture shrieking in protest at being bumped up into a $50 million studio movie whose only real pleasure is its happy-color production design. A huge ensemble with little to do but act wacky doesn’t help: Willem Dafoe as Steve’s insecure engineer; Anjelica Huston, in a variation of her maternal role in Tenenbaums, as his brilliant wife; Cate Blanchett, in a painfully fake British accent, as a pregnant journalist (once again, Murray competes for her favors with a son, bona fide or otherwise); Bud Cort, looking downright ancient as the bond-company stooge who ends up rooting for Steve; and Seu Jorge as a safety expert given to singing David Bowie songs in Portuguese, which I suppose must have seemed funny on the drawing board. Crudely rendered fake fish, created by the talented animator Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach), float pointlessly in the background. There are even lurches into action sequences, which the director can’t seem to control. (Anderson ruefully but accurately told The New York Times that in six-camera shots "You’re supposed to have six cameras going, and I don’t know what to do with the other five.") In his other films it was a delight to tarry over Anderson’s fanciful yet truthful detail. In The Life Aquatic you have to fight your way through his digressive mess to find the story. Somewhere buried beneath all this ballast something is being said, again, about flawed middle-aged men falling from grace and redeeming themselves. This time I’m damned if I know what that something is, and I hope that next time around Anderson will return to his greatest creative asset — a small budget.

In the early phase of his career, Steven Soderbergh might well have been dubbed the father of the Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze et al. school of creative obfuscation. I’ve no doubt that Soderbergh can and will again make inscrutably brainy pieces of varying distinction like Schizopolis, Kafka and The Underneath. For now, though, he’s the nearest thing we have to a gentleman director, and I mean that as an ardent compliment. For sheer urbane elegance coupled with technical mastery and lush, old-fashioned élan, no one working for the studios today comes close to the versatile Soderbergh, who has shown himself as fluent in the language of old-Hollywood romance (Out of Sight) as in the grainy nether regions of the international drug trade (Traffic) or the L.A. crime world (The Limey), or in the plebeian energies of populist agitprop (Erin Brockovich). In his remake of the Rat Pack crime caper Ocean’s Eleven, Soderbergh seemed to reach a stylistic peak. And though it’s not unusual for him to take a break between big pictures and yield to a personal indulgence, this time around he’s clearly sticking with what works. If anything, Ocean’s Twelve tops the suave formal daring of its predecessor, and I’ve no doubt that even in the crush of holiday movies, it will work a similar box-office miracle.

When last we saw Daniel Ocean (George Clooney) and his ragged crew of petty-crime experts, they had penetrated the inaccessible vault of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas and parted fastidious casino boss Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) from $160 million of his fortune, not to mention his girlfriend Tess (Julia Roberts). Now they languish in miserable legitimacy, from which, in a puckish and very funny reversal of the opening scenes of Ocean’s Eleven, they’re sprung when Benedict dispatches his thugs to round them up and demand they give him back his money. Following a series of increasingly impossible heists around Europe, Daniel and his merry band find themselves pitted not only against high-tech security gizmos and the cops, spearheaded by art-crime specialist Catherine Zeta-Jones, but against the Continent’s premier playboy and thief, the Night Fox (Vincent Cassel), who never saw a Fabergé egg he didn’t like.

Ocean’s Twelve’s many twists and turns are intricately fitted together and accessorized with nifty flashback and delirious pauses for nutty banter. The movie, which has a crisply witty screenplay by George Nolfi, pulls so many fast ones on both its characters and its audience that I can tell you little more about the story that wouldn’t ruin it for you. Suffice it to say that the movie starts off flitting between several American states and ends up racing between several trendy European capitals, that Roberts gets to impersonate a famous movie star, that other Soderbergh pals show up for gallant cameos, that Cherry Jones does something surprising for Matt Damon’s hilariously overambitious pickpocket, and that Zeta-Jones, gorgeous (despite a duck-bill hairdo) in black leather and red silks, discovers that the line between crime and crimefighting is finer than she’d thought. The heist scenes are as terrific as they are hilariously abortive. Ocean’s Twelve may be one of the most glamorous, goofy and heartfelt films about failure ever made, and as soon as I get out from under Oscar-qualifying weepies about incest, child-molesting and paralysis, I’m going to run out and see it again, just to cheer myself up.

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU | Directed by WES ANDERSON | Written by ANDERSON and NOAH BAUMBACH Produced by ANDERSON, BARRY MENDEL and SCOTT RUDIN Released by Touchstone Pictures | At the Grove

OCEAN’S TWELVE | Directed by STEVEN SODERBERGH | Written by GEORGE NOLFI | Produced by JERRY WEINTRAUB | Released by Warner Bros. Pictures | Citywide


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