The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

You come to expect certain things from a Wes Anderson movie: deadpan humor, a self-consciously hip sound track, Owen Wilson and characters in matching uniforms (usually jumpsuits). It’s not certain that this kind of predictability after only three films is a good thing for a filmmaker, but it does make the case for cinema auteurship.

If you’re a big fan of Anderson’s films (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums) you’ll probably find his latest outing, Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, a more or less satisfying addition to the quirky canon. For everyone else, this static and overly deliberate film will leave you scratching your head as to why Bill Murray chose it as the follow-up to his celebrated turn in Lost In Translation.

Murray plays Steve Zissou, a once-celebrated marine explorer (a la Jacques Cousteau) struggling to keep his life and research afloat. A selfish blowhard, his marriage to Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) is on the rocks, his boat is falling apart, his funding has dried up and a mysterious shark has eaten his best friend, Esteban (Seymour Cassel). Vowing revenge and a return to the limelight, he takes to the seas like a morose Captain Ahab.

Along for the expedition is a nosy pregnant reporter (Cate Blanchett), a bond company “stooge” (Bud Cort) and Air Kentucky pilot Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), who just might be Steve’s long lost son — but given Wilson’s feeble accent, probably isn’t really from Kentucky.

As with Anderson’s other work, Life Aquatic is brimming with eccentric characters, droll sight gags, impeccable framing and a sound track that boasts carefully eclectic pop tunes. Particularly delightful is the dollhouse bisection of Zissou’s ship, The Bellerophon, which allows us to watch the hive-like activity of the crew. It’s a wonderful visual borrowed from the Jerry Lewis film The Ladies’ Man and gives the movie a much-needed sense of wonder.

Less successful are the Day-Glo lizards and iridescent sea creatures that serve as colorful metaphors for the magic and wonder missing from Steve’s life. Created by stop-action animator Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas), these candy-striped creatures probably sounded great on paper but end up as ill-fitting distractions in a film already cluttered with clever ideas.

There’s no doubt that Anderson is an inventive filmmaker bursting with ideas. The problem is that he hasn’t found a powerful story to contain them. Moments of wit and whimsy — such as a crew member who serenades us with Portuguese covers of David Bowie songs — come off as overly deliberate. One begins to wonder if Anderson’s meticulous attention to production design and offbeat moments might have been better spent on story and character development.

Despite armed run-ins with Filipino pirates and a hostile rivalry with a more successful oceanographer (the always dependable Jeff Goldblum), this grand adventure of personal and scientific discovery is actually a meandering and episodic mess, unable to find its sea legs.

The members of Bellerophon’s eccentric crew (all sporting red knit caps and matching jumpsuits) bicker, smoke and comically pose but remain vague and unfocused as characters. Willem Dafoe has a few hilarious moments as the jealous first mate, Klaus, but is mostly banished to the margins of the story.

The film’s biggest problem, however, is its title character. Steve Zissou is depicted as emotionally adrift, incapable of connecting with the people or magnificent creatures around him. Anderson specializes in films about overachieving, immature oddballs like this, but unlike the precocious Max Fisher in Rushmore or the charmingly selfish Royal (Gene Hackman) in Tenenbaums, Zissou is frustratingly inert. Murray valiantly struggles to give his washed-up adventurer a sense of ironic dignity but, in the end, can’t overcome a woefully underwritten role. Life Aquatic, despite its hip whimsy and tragicomic pretensions, lacks a beating heart.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].

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