Sunday, December 26, 2004

"The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou": A Review

There are plenty of filmmakers working today with a distinctive vision and viewpoint, but only a few possess a style so unique that you could identify one of their movies by sight alone. Robert Altman, David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch are a few who come to mind -- but there ain't many.

Wes Anderson is among them. His first three films -- "Bottle Rocket" (1996), "Rushmore" (1998) and "The Royal Tenenbaums" (2001) -- were wonderfully off-kilter creations of inner-kid whimsy, merging the childlike imagination of Lewis Carroll with the anything-goes aesthetic of fairytales. When Anderson tiptoes right up to the edge of preciousness without straying further, his movies are enchanting. Like Anderson's professional hero, the late Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, his movies explore the carnival of humanity.

"The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" is Anderson at his most precious yet, which means it's a love-it-or-hate-it proposition for audiences. Either you surrender to his willful caprice, or all the affectations -- the deliberate pacing, static compositions, unyielding quirkiness -- will slowly get on your nerves like an adult who insists on speaking in baby talk. It's all very adorable. Up to a point.

As for me, I surrendered to it. While it doesn't match the manic genius of "Rushmore" or charm of "Tenenbaums," there is much to enjoy in the latest Anderson meditation on father-son relationships.

Bill Murray, who appears to be in the midst of a career renaissance (if you forgive "Garfield," that is), stars as the anachronistic title character, a Jacques Cousteau-type oceanographer who has spent decades making documentary films about, aptly enough, the life aquatic. After his longtime sidekick Esteban (Seymour Cassel) is eaten alive by the mythical jaguar shark, Zissou and his crew set sail on their venerable ship, the Belafonte, to track down and kill the errant fish.

This time, however, there are some additions to Team Zissou. He is joined by Ned Plimpton (a surprisingly restrained Owen Wilson), a Kentucky pilot and son of Zissou's ex-love who suspects he is the oceanographer's son. And there is Jane (Cate Blanchett), a feisty magazine reporter who is pregnant and working on a puff-piece profile of Zissou.

Nevertheless, the plot is chiefly a canvas for the deadpan, vainglorious exploits of Steve Zissou. Some endearing silliness ensues, stuff about pirates and a wonderful running gag involving a ubiquitous Team Zissou member (Sen Jorge) who strums guitar and warbles David Bowie songs in Portuguese. Angelica Huston, Michael Gambon and Jeff Goldblum take part, although Willem Dafoe steals nearly every scene he's in with his take as Klaus, a shipmate slavishly devoted to Steve.

The movie revels in the artifice of its own make-believe universe. Anderson takes pains to show us that the Belafonte is a big multi-leveled soundstage. Henry Selick ("James and the Giant Peach") provides stop-motion animation of colorful sea critters that wouldn't be out of place in an old Ray Harryhausen fantasy pic. The action sequences -- Team Zissou must stop a pirate attack and later rescue a bond company stooge (Bud Cort) from the criminals -- are unabashedly ludicrous.

The linchpin is Murray. His mixture of smugness and sad-eyed melancholy breathes life into a character that easily could have been nothing more than a bundle of eccentricities.

Critic A.O. Scott provides a nifty review in The New York Times.


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