The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

on December 10, 2004 by Wade Major
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Some ideas are better left as ideas. "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" is a rather numbing case in point. One can hardly question co-writer/director Wes Anderson's credentials -- "Bottle Rocket," "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" are all distinctive and original works, notwithstanding their respective weaknesses. But with "The Life Aquatic," Anderson has exercised less than characteristic discipline, dumping a disorganized litany of partially-realized and ill-matched concepts onto the screen in surprisingly haphazard fashion.

Bill Murray stars as the title character, a marine adventurer who, with his crew of international layabouts and oddballs (including Willem Dafoe as the German Klaus Daimler), roams about the seas in their fully-outfitted ship, the Belafonte, aimlessly undoing the work and reputation of Jacques Cousteau at every opportunity. Having recently lost his longtime friend and partner, Esteban (a shockingly bald-pated Seymour Cassell), to the jaws of a rare and ravenous jaguar shark, Steve Zissou swears revenge and takes his crew out for yet another mission, though this one with a purpose as single-minded as that of the shark itself. Complicating matters a bit is the appearance of a Kentucky lad named Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) who is quite likely Zissou's long-lost illegitimate son. Ned knows nothing about the sea, marine life or diving, but in the interest of building the father-son relationship they never had, he and Zissou agree that he'll join the crew anyhow.

And then there's that fetching British journalist, Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), an unwed mother-to-be who nonetheless stirs Steve's ever-active hormones. Unfortunately, she's got Ned a little hot under the collar, too, threatening to derail the jaguar shark mission even as father and son end up on the proverbial collision course over the same woman. And that's still not all. There's a weird detour centering on violent Filipino pirates, and some semi-subplots involving Steve's acerbic wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) and her half-gay dandy of an ex-husband, Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum).

It's worth noting that while longtime Anderson friend and partner Owen Wilson appears in the film, this is the first of Wes Anderson's pictures that he did not co-write with Wilson. Instead, he authored the script with Noah Baumbach, best known as the writer/director of such indie faves as "Kicking and Screaming" and "Mr. Jealousy." Unfortunately, Baumbach's sensibilities don't mesh with Anderson's in the same way that Wilson's have previously. Between Wilson's playful sense of droll silliness and Anderson's subversive cynicism, the earlier scripts offered audiences a bearable level of acid wit. Here, the acid flows so fast and furious that the occasional witty quip is already half-dissolved before it ever leaves the actor's lips.

Murray and Wilson do give it their best -- as does nearly everyone in the star-studded cast -- but it's problematic to pair two exceedingly talented comic actors without allowing at least one of them the latitude to cut loose. Anderson's penchant for recycling the '60s-era stylistic imprimatur of Richard Lester is still intact, though less pronounced than in previous films. And that's clearly a good thing. But Anderson seems to be fast losing his grip on even an artificial reality for his characters to inhabit. Flat, unfocused and weirdly random, "The Life Aquatic" is simply all wet. Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, Noah Taylor, Bud Cort, Seymour Cassel and Seu Jorge. Directed by Wes Anderson. Written by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. Produced by Wes Anderson, Barry Mendel and Scott Rudin. A Buena Vista release. Drama/Comedy. Rated R for language, some drug use, violence and partial nudity. Running time: 118 min

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