I’m amused when people just can’t get past how indisputably quirky Wes Anderson’s films are; I’m slightly annoyed when they dismiss them as overly ironic (when the films are as devoid of actual irony as a certain Alanis Morissette song); however, I’m really irritated when they accuse Anderson of being soulless and smug, as if he created carefully controlled, precocious art-snob projects for only his own amusement.

I practically take such condemnations personally, because if I had to compile a list of my favorite contemporary filmmakers, Anderson would be near or at the top of it. You can measure a good film by how often you desire to return to it. Each time I’ve seen RUSHMORE (1998), THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001), and even the comparatively minor BOTTLE ROCKET (1996), it’s been a richer, more rewarding experience.

This goes far beyond picking up on every little detail packed into each dense, obsessively-storyboarded frame. With every viewing, these films resonate more for me, and damned if I can figure out exactly what Anderson’s doing right (and what other directors are doing wrong). Perhaps it’s the complex, often uneasy tonal shifts in dialogue and narrative, or the ability to really take in everything on additional viewings after the first one’s initial bombardment/sensory overload, or even the idea that what once seems deadpan, out of left field and flat, takes on layers of meaning after you know the whole story.

I just saw Anderson’s fourth feature for the second time, and I feel much more confident that it’s not a letdown following TENENBAUMS. To give a brief plot summary, the film is its titular character (Bill Murray), an aging celebrity oceanographer/filmmaker in the Jacques Cousteau mold. At an Italian premiere of his latest documentary, he meets Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a soft-spoken air pilot from Kentucky claiming to be his illegitimate son. With funding for his films on the skids, Steve invites Ned (who has recently lost his mother and inherited some money) to become a member of Team Zissou (“order him a red cap and a Speedo”), a truly motley crew/entourage that, among many others, includes Klaus (Willem Dafoe), a scrappy German sidekick and Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), Steve’s brilliant (clearly the brains of the operation from the moment we see her) but estranged wife.

Along with Jane, an uptight, pregnant British reporter (Cate Blanchett) whom more or less fits right in, they set sail in search of the mythical “jaguar shark” that ate Steve’s second-in-command, Esteban (Seymour Cassel) in his last film; more importantly, they’re making a sequel in hopes to restore Steve to his past glories. Early on, we see how fixated he is with his public image, to the point where the expeditions teem with contrivances staged for the camera. But to say that Anderson (and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach) has painted Steve as nothing but an obnoxious megalomaniac is incorrect. Yes, Steve makes his share of misguided decisions (such repeatedly referring to Jane as a “bulldyke” because she won’t respond to his advances) and gradually alienates at least half of his crew.

You also never forget that Steve’s an ineffably sad man—such melancholy suffuses this film more than any of Anderson’s previous works. Yet, although he’s pitiable to a degree Royal Tenenbaum would never allow himself to be, Steve still turns out a sympathetic character. Much of that stems from Murray’s marvelous performance, which exudes the weariness and understated demeanor that he previously revealed in RUSHMORE and LOST IN TRANSLATION. What makes it tricky is that Steve often is an asshole, and Anderson and Baumbach haven’t necessarily written a story of redemption. By the end, however, after he reads Jane’s article on him, he admits that while he initially didn’t like her portrayal, he concludes that he was that person that said and did those things, so he accepts himself, warts and all. It’s an incredibly touching moment.

Before reaching its requisite-for-Anderson slow-motion final shot, THE LIFE AQUATIC makes room for the usual expository montages (watch for the early one that introduces us to Steve’s ship, the Belafonte, as an actual-size diorama) throwaway gags, and emphasis on unrequited love and fractured familial relations. And also a few acts of theft, a mutiny, a pirate attack (!), a rescue mission, a three-legged dog, reconciliations, deaths and moments (even a few entire scenes) that add nothing to the narrative except awe and maybe enlightenment. After my first viewing a month ago, I complained that Anderson was repeating himself, and it does include all of his trademarks, right from the opening frame’s Mark Mothersbaugh score (by the way, Mothersbaugh really outdoes himself here, vacillating between oldfangled classical orchestration and Devo-like electronica, with lots of vintage Bowie in between and interpretations thereof that make up the film’s quirkiest but loveliest running gag). Still, this is clearly a bigger, bolder film than Anderson has ever before attempted, packed with exotic locales, mind-blowing sets (particularly the desert island hotel), actual action sequences (still way weirder than anything you’ll see in a Schwarzenegger film) and a dazzling assortment of Henry Selick-designed stop-animation sea creatures.

As you’d expect, THE LIFE AQUATIC is frequently hilarious, with great comedic turns from Jeff Goldblum (oddball as ever as Steve’s nemesis/Eleanor’s ex-husband), Bud Cort (as a “company stooge” who delivers the film’s best punchline) and especially Dafoe, who plays what could’ve been a one-note character with so much gusto that you can imagine building an entire project around him. But the film’s also really sad, often simultaneously, and I think that’s the problem most people have with Anderson. For example, he follows the most devastating tearjerker of a scene with a laugh-out-loud funny one. Most films don’t do this (and probably couldn’t get away with it if they tried), but Anderson continually does, and it’s not just for comic relief. His films practically scream out the notion that life is equal parts angst and bliss. To suggest that both are viable options is not what some people want to hear, particularly from their entertainment.

Anderson has received the most mixed reviews of his career with this film; the only lingering fault I have with it is that those tonal shifts aren’t as smooth or disciplined as they were in TENENBAUMS. At my second viewing, a few people even walked out at random moments. Fortunately, most stayed and many were receptive, laughing at the jokes and even gasping at the more startling narrative turns. This film’s scattered enthusiastic reviews (most notably Peter Keough’s) have likened watching it to the “mechanics of dreaming”. I’ll add that THE LIFE AQUATIC is indeed a wonderful dream (or as Steve concludes at the end, an “adventure”), but one still very much the stuff of real, relatable, occasionally messy human emotions and trials.