Why would anybody want to call a movie The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou? It sounds like something retranslated from a Taiwanese lobby poster. As one who has never gotten entirely onto the wavelength of director Wes Anderson, I admit that he dreams up terrific movie monikers, especially The Royal Tenenbaums, with its shimmering triple pun on family, monarchy, and Christmas. This latest title, however, clunks more than it sparkles, and that's a new note for Anderson, whose films, if nothing else, tend to be smugly sure of themselves in every arch irony and wide-angle-lensed detail. Not this one: It's The Comedy Awkward With Wes Anderson.
Who, exactly, is Steve Zissou (Bill Murray)? He's a 52-year-old, dope-smoking celebrity oceanographer/filmmaker with a tanned paunch, a salt-and-pepper beard, and a signature wool cap, all reminiscent of Jacques Cousteau. Zissou, though, unlike that trend-setting French scuba superstar, is a contemporary American desperate for grant money, living off the fumes of his faded reputation. In the opening scene, he sits in a red-draped performance hall and presents his latest documentary, a seafaring travelogue in which the principal event turns out to be Zissou's longtime comrade getting eaten by a jaguar shark. Of course, no one in the audience so much as blinks an eye. In the world according to Anderson, even death by jaws is ironic.
Embarking on a freewheeling voyage of shark-hunting revenge, Zissou is Cousteau mixed with Ahab crossed with...well, Bill Murray, the Buddha of dyspeptic detachment. Traveling along with him is Team Zissou, his dependably dysfunctional ocean family, which includes Klaus, his testy Teutonic cameraman, played by a hilariously humorless Willem Dafoe; a pair of albino-dolphin guides; a bond company geek (Bud Cort); and Ned (Owen Wilson), a courtly Southern pilot who may or may not be Zissou's long-lost illegitimate son. Jane (Cate Blanchett), an alluring (and pregnant) reporter from the Oceanographic Explorer, has come along to do a Steve Zissou cover story, and Zissou and Ned soon become uneasy rivals for her affection.
Anderson, who shares screenplay credit with Noah Baumbach, presents The Life Aquatic as a water-world variation on The Royal Tenenbaums. Once again, he creates a hermetic, glassed-in movie world of postmodern anachronisms that charms and distances in equal measure. Many of the atmospheric details are marvelous, such as Zissou's trusty if shopworn vessel, a revamped World War II submarine as intricately compartmentalized as a giant dollhouse, or the animated ocean creatures (like a wriggling ''crayon'' seahorse) that are integrated into the live-action tableaux, or the shipboard troubadour who sings David Bowie songs in Portuguese. Jeff Goldblum hams effusively as Zissou's spiffier, more highly financed rival, and just as the film verges on preciousness, Anderson springs a bloody attack by Filipino pirates.
Yet our stake in what happens remains negligible. Zissou may be a variation on Gene Hackman's furious and ebullient Royal Tenenbaum, but Murray, scowly-eyed and irritable, is too one-note in his funk. He never ignites the spark of crusty misanthropic life that Hackman did. As someone who has warmed up to Anderson's work only gradually, I'd call this a step back for him, but I also can't help but wonder: Will he ever take that crucial step forward and stop saying, Isn't it ironic?