(R) 4 starsEd Johnson-Ott
You should know right off the bat that this is another of those odd little movies that will stir people up. Bill Murray goes the deadpan comedy route again, like he did in Lost in Translation. He's very good at it, but if you're in the mood for the Bill Murray that made What about Bob? you may find his work here frustrating or annoying. The film is the latest from Wes Anderson, who made Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. While Anderson has many devoted fans, including me, his eccentric approach to filmmaking drives some people crazy. And The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is certainly his most eccentric work yet.
So there you go. Fair warning has been given.
If you're like me (and if you are, God bless you, because isn't it hard?) you'll want to set aside time for a second viewing of The Life Aquatic, as there is far too much going on to digest in one setting. The visuals alone warrant a repeat look. Most of the scenes in the film appear to take place in meticulously arranged terrariums and aquariums. Within these wide, lovingly decorated boxes, the human cast members play out their various adventures, dramas, romances and jihads.
There are other creatures, too, colorful denizens of the sea (and a few of the land). They are all imaginative little critters created for the film and stop-motion animated. Why? Because that's how Anderson wants it and when you're the boss, you can be as quirky as you want to be.
Murray plays 52-year-old Steve Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau type whose popularity is fading. He used to be an oceanic superstar with a huge fan club, but now he is having trouble getting financing for the second part of his latest documentary. The object of the film, he explains impassively to his audience, is revenge. A one-of-a-kind jaguar shark (which some believe Zissou made up) ate his lead diver and best friend Esteban (Seymour Cassel) and he intends to find the beast and kill it.
Fine, so this will be a Captain Ahab style quest, right? Well, not really. While Zissou does set out after the shark, Anderson focuses more on intership relationships and hijinks. For instance, there's the relationship between Zissou and Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson, sincere as all get out), a very polite young man from Kentucky who might be Zissou's son. For reasons genuine and callous, the adventurer invites Plimpton to join Team Zissou, which really hacks off Klaus the engineer (Willem Dafoe at his best), who feels threatened by the man's presence.
And then there's the pregnant British journalist Jane Winslet-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), onboard to do a story, or perhaps a hatchet job. Either way, she soon finds herself pursued by both Zissou and Plimpton. Also on the boat is Bill Ubell (Bud Cort in a terrific performance), a bond company rep who is supposed to make sure that Team Zissou travels responsibly and sticks to the mission. Normally, Zissou's wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston, regal as always), the brains of the outfit, would manage a guy like Ubell, but she is boycotting the voyage. Even worse, she is vacationing at the tropical estate of her ex, hot-shot oceanographer Alistair Hennessey (a self-satisfied Jeff Goldblum).
Throughout all the irony and whimsy, there is a surprising amount of tenderness exhibited here. The music that accompanies those scenes is perfect, which is no surprise, as Anderson selects his songs first and writes to fit them. This time he uses a number of dandy early David Bowie numbers, performed in Portuguese by Seu Jorge (City of God), who accompanies himself on guitar. Of the other tunes, my favorite is "The Way I Feel Inside" by the legendary British Invasion band The Zombies, lovingly played over a solemn occasion late in the film.
The Life Aquatic is unlike anything you will see this holiday season, or this year, for that matter. I'll be watching it again as soon as I turn in this review.