In the beginning, there was consensus. Or close to it anyway. Wes Anderson introduced himself to the world with 1996’s Bottle Rocket, which critics hailed as a promising debut—praise that would be ratified by no less than Martin Scorsese, who put the film on his best-of-the-nineties list. The follow-up, the sui generis Rushmore, was even more widely acclaimed. Not since Tarantino had a young American filmmaker emerged with such a keen sense of his own auteurness. By fall 2001, on the eve of the release of his star-studded third feature, Anderson was the biggest thing going in indie film culture.
Then The Royal Tenenbaums made its New York Film Festival world premiere, and Anderson was suddenly that thing that auteurs inevitably become: a flashpoint for partisans. The reviews were mostly kind, many even rapturous. But the dissenting voices were no less assertive: too twee, too stylized, too show-offy, they moaned. The battle lines were drawn. Armies of fanboys battled with unmoved skeptics, even as indie culture—and, as the years went by, the culture at large—internalized the Wes Anderson style.
It was in that context that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou came out in December 2004. Oozing ambition out of every pore and self-consciousness with every move, the movie remains the most divisive entry in the Anderson canon. Unscientific measures like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes rate it as his worst, a judgment with which this Anderson fan concurs. He was approaching the pinnacle of his cultural influence—the “Wes wannabe” was fast becoming the decade’s version of the Tarantino imitator—and had made a movie that felt more like an exhibition. It was the work of an artist who had become the curator of his own style. Seven years later, it remains Exhibit A in the case against Anderson—and, paradoxically, a reminder of his value to film culture. Read the rest of Elbert Ventura's entry in Reverse Shot's "Simply the Worst" symposium.