Los Angeles Times

Movie review: 'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou'


2 stars (out of 4)

Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"—in which Bill Murray plays a shaggy-dog American version of oceanographer-filmmaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau—is a comedy that seems to have most everything going for it but the ability to make us laugh. Despite its cast and director, it's an amazingly unfunny movie, drowned in its own conceits, half-strangled by the tongue so obtrusively in its cheek.

Anderson, the writer-director of "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" is the master of a special type of American movie comedy—dry, deadpan and very smart—and I've liked all his movies up to now. But something has definitely gone awry with "Aquatic," beginning with its clumsy title, the Murray character's silly half Cousteau-ish name and the sillier name of his ship. (Cousteau's boat was the Calypso; Zissou's is the Belafonte, a weak gag on calypso-singer Harry.) "The Life Aquatic" is full of action soporific and jokes anemic.

The movie, filmed in an odd style with a lot of stop-motion animation, is about a hapless "Moby Dick-ish" filmed ocean adventure in which the aging, famous but recently flop-ridden underwater documentarian Steve Zissou (Murray) takes his trusted crew and a few newcomers on an obsessive sea hunt. His Ahab-esque goal: to avenge, on camera, the death by jaguar shark attack of his beloved assistant Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassell).

Along the way more complications and adventures pile up—including a Filipino pirate attack and kidnapping, the appearance of Steve's formidable wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), a sea-going rivalry with slimy Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) and Steve's weird bonding with courtly Kentuckian Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), who claims to be his long-lost son and also becomes Steve's rival for the sexual favors of pregnant British magazine journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett).

Other characters trapped in the bizarre would-be comic quest include Steve's boot-licking German mate Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), his shady producer Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon), the bond company stooge Bill Ubell (Bud Cort, of "Harold and Maude") and Steve's usual crew of filmmakers, musicians and assistants. (Among the elements "Aquatic" wastes are a score by Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh and original songs by David Bowie, mysteriously sung here in Portuguese.)

For a would-be comedy-satire-adventure, "Aquatic" is alarmingly somnolent and unexciting; Murray seems to drag his way through the movie in a state of near torpor that hardly suggests a vengeance-driven maniac. (Even so, he gets some laughs.) And Anderson has decided to convey the Belafonte's mission on a toylike beehive set, mostly avoiding the real ocean and using puppet fish by animation expert Henry Selick ("The Nightmare Before Christmas").

It's an interesting, half-charming idea, not unlike the stylized Manhattan of "Tenenbaums," and it's often realized with skill and imagination. But eventually this artificiality, combined with the mostly deadpan acting, tends to suggest a '50s TV kiddie show gone horribly wrong. By the time of the pirate attack, with glowering villains waving what seem to be toy plastic guns, the movie had lost me.

In Anderson's two best movies, "Rushmore" and his delightful debut film "Bottle Rocket," there was an exhilarating contrast between the stylized, deadpan comic performances he got from Wilson and others and the somewhat real backgrounds. Now that he's won bigger budgets and the ability to create his own private worlds, he may be getting trapped in them. That doesn't mean "Aquatic" doesn't have its moments. It means that we're disappointed at their rarity.

"Rushmore" and "Tenenbaums" were daringly dark and screwy family comedies. But the humor here seems inbred, the jokes so seemingly private and referential ("du Plantier" is the name of a longtime French producer, "Plimpton" suggests the late writer/editor George) that they barely exist as jokes. Most of the actors, starting with Murray, seem tired and confused—and it's hard to blame them. In this enviable cast, most of whom have a few grace moments, only Blanchett, whose spark may be unquenchable, manages unfailing effervescence and energy.

Most damaging of all is the lack of much sense of real sea air, wind and waves to create an arena for Anderson's flights of fancy. "Life Aquatic," in the end, is just too dry.

"The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"

Directed by Wes Anderson; written by Anderson, Noah Baumbach; photographed by Robert Yeoman; edited by David Moritz; production designed by Mark Friedberg; music by Mark Mothersbaugh with songs by David Bowie; animation by Henry Selick; produced by Wes Anderson, Barry Mendel, Scott Rudin. In English, Italian and Tagalog. A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation of an American Empirical Picture; opens Saturday. Running time: 1:58. MPAA rating: R (language, some drug use, violence and partial nudity).

Steve Zissou - Bill Murray
Ned Plimpton - Owen Wilson
Jane Winslett-Richardson - Cate Blanchett
Eleanor Zissou - Anjelica Huston
Klaus Daimler - Willem Dafoe
Alistair Hennessey - Jeff Goldblum
Oseary Drakoulias - Michael Gambon

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