The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was good. Entertainment Weekly's review accused Anderson of burying the movie under its own irony, but I don't see it that way. There is bad irony in movies, where smug knowingness is used to excuse intellectual laziness--see everything Kevin Williamson has ever done--and then there's the Wes Anderson style. It's irony, I guess, in that there's weird, quirky, silly things that we're meant to see as weird and quirky, but it's not insincere.
When we see all the retro 1970s-ish touches filling the frame of a movie like Life Aquatic, it's funny sometimes, just like the laugh of recognition I had at spotting the old-fashioned VCR in the Anderson-esque Napoleon Dynamite, but it's not meant to tell you not to take the movie seriously. I think Anderson's movies are extremely sincere emotionally. This is, ironically, sincere irony, not obnoxious "superior" irony. When he puts in silly, purposely bad special effects, it's not so we can laugh at them, knowing that we're better than that--we laugh with them, and recognize the crudity of the effects while feeling affection for their nostalgic charms.
Life Aquatic is sad, as Ryan notes. But I don't think the humor suffers. It's only a little less funny than previous Anderson efforts, but there's plenty here that works. It does take awhile to get going. Not until Zissou and company finally set out on the expedition does the movie start to settle into a comfortable pace. The tense, emotional moments are strong and understated. The shifts in tone can be jarring, though not in a bad way.
It's hard to compare with previous Anderson films. It's similar and yet very different. This one ups the heightened reality even further, and matches it with exotic locales and adventurous digressions. In some ways, it's goofier, in others, it's even moodier. Like the leap from Rushmore to Tenenbaums, it's everything you know about Wes Anderson, taken up another notch. Afterwards it struck me that it's perhaps the kind of movie that Max Fischer would make. Big, dramatic, over the top, full of weird, quirky things that maybe try a bit too hard, but sweet and lovable at the core.
I'll probably always like Rushmore best, partly because I tend to cling to my first exposure to a given artist, but also because I have a strong fondness for teen coming-of-age stories in the abstract, although 99% of them are terrible in practice. Thus the rare one that succeeds is all the more precious.
Ultimately, what I loved about Life Aquatic was the way the settings and tone and art direction all combined to create a complete world, a world that doesn't exist and never did, yet feels real and lived in--a world that I was happy to visit.