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'The Life Aquatic' is a shallow adventure

There's a man at a party, and you know the person I'm talking about. He's always at the center of the room, engaging in clever banter. He's gifted, yet self-deprecating; artistic but modest. He wears interesting socks. Some at this party think he's the most spellbinding individual they've ever met. Others see affectation, a mere show; they note that his eyes catch his own in the mirror more than those of anybody he's talking to.

If that party is the movies, then that man is writer-director Wes Anderson. Some have hailed the maker of "Rushmore" (1998) and "The Royal Tenenbaums" (2001) as the savior of American independent film; others -- myself included -- have wondered where, exactly, is the beef. Those movies are alternately droll and unwatchable in their calculated whimsy, in the secondhand solipsism they lift wholesale from J.D. Salinger ("The Catcher in the Rye" is a great book, but can we finally admit it has been responsible for more privileged adolescent self-pity than a culture deserves?), and in the director's unwillingness to commit to anything as dull as plot.

With the exception of his first film, "Bottle Rocket" (1996), Anderson hasn't made a movie that's more than the sound of a young man talking to himself. With "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" (opening tomorrow), he has run out of things to say.

The film's meta-fey title alone is an example of why some people adore Anderson and why he drives others absolutely crazy. It's also the name of the underwater-adventure documentary series that oceanographer Zissou (Bill Murray) has been filming for 20 years, the latest installment of which is greeted with abject silence at the Santo Loquasto Film Festival in the opening sequences of "Aquatic." (And if you get the in-joke that Santo Loquasto is the name of Woody Allen's longtime production designer, well . . . self-congratulation is its own reward, I guess.)

Clearly, Zissou -- a kind of Jacques Cousteau in the throes of a midlife crisis -- has seen better days. His right-hand man (Seymour Cassell, too briefly seen) has been eaten by a rare jaguar shark that may or may not exist. His producer (Michael Gambon) can't get funding for the next "Life Aquatic" film. His wife, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), is the real brains of Team Zissou and has just left him. His scientific rival (Jeff Goldblum) is better funded and better dressed (he's also Eleanor's ex-husband). All that keeps Zissou's ego fed is the needy faithfulness of his German engineer Klaus (Willem Dafoe), and the appearance of an airline pilot (Owen Wilson) who may or may not be his illegitimate son.

The trailers for "Life Aquatic" are hilarious, and for good reason -- they highlight the film's brief, inventive spasms of wit and excise the wall-to-wall mopiness. Anderson likes to make movies about entropy, about once-heroic lives devolving into stasis and dysfunctional family groups drifting apart. Fine. He also likes characters who are so self-absorbed and prickly as to be hard to warm up to: Max Fischer in "Rushmore," Royal Tenenbaum, certainly Murray's Zissou. Also fine.

Less fine is Anderson's inability to fashion a movie that doesn't feel insanely fussed over on the surface and listless beneath. Team Zissou's ocean-going laboratory ship, the Belafonte, is visualized in a cutaway set that feels like a kid's balsa-wood model; it's neat to look at but serves no dramatic purpose other than to showcase the director's flair. Brazilian actor-singer Seu Jorge, from "City of God," has been hired to sit on the deck and sing David Bowie songs in Portuguese; it's cute exactly once. The eccentric animator Henry Selick ("The Nightmare Before Christmas") provides oddball CGI deep-sea creatures that dash around the edges of the film, like appetizers for a meal that never comes.

When the director turns his attention to narrative -- to things happening -- he trips over his own feet. There's a plotline about Filipino pirates taking over the Belafonte and kidnapping a crew member (Bud Cort of "Harold and Maude," finally the right age for Ruth Gordon), which allows Zissou to stage a mission to rescue both the crew member and his own self-worth. But the rescue sequences are tatty and fumbled, not even worthwhile as a parody of action movies. And the central relationship between Zissou and Ned, his possible son, is so underwritten as to vanish into the mist.

Underacted, too. For once, Wilson lacks his customary slacker charisma, and when this actor isn't winking he's helpless. Cate Blanchett, as a pregnant reporter who becomes Ned's romantic interest, does bring focus and vibrancy to the proceedings, and Huston and Goldblum are pros in their too-few scenes. Dafoe has a comic role, for once, and it's fun to see him play a Teutonic nerd.

But Bill Murray is simply lost. The beloved comedian arches his puppy-dog eyes like he did in "Lost in Translation," but where he was playing an actual character in Sofia Coppola's film, here he merely assumes the weary hostility for which he has been so well rewarded in the past. This is amusing, but not what you would call acting. For starters, to be ironically detached you need something to be detached from, and the superficial pleasures of "Life Aquatic" are far too slippery to offer traction.

Wes Anderson is often held up as the litmus test of modern American independent filmmaking. In truth, he has become the poster boy for its limitations: for an insularity and "quirkiness" that allows intelligent filmgoers to feel better about themselves at the risk of real passion and real art. Until Anderson can locate that passion -- for life, for movies, for anything besides brittle disenchantment -- he will remain a talented miniaturist, and the party he plays to will slowly dwindle to one.

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