Wednesday, June 15, 2005
Movie Review: "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"
Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Angelica Huston, Willem Dafoe and Jeff Goldblum
Directed by Wes Anderson
Bill Murray has largely avoided the lackluster and laugh-deficient comedies that have struck many of his fellow ex-"Saturday Night Live" compatriots. In fact, he's one that's actually improving with age, with one Oscar nomination under his belt in recent years and several other award-worthy performances in the same span.
As the title character in writer-director Wes Anderson's comedy "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," Murray carves out another memorable performance, portraying an oceanographer who has come to a personal and professional crossroads.
The professional one stems from the fact that funding and public interest for the documentaries he films of his exploits (any similarity to Jacques Cousteau is incidental ... kind of) has mostly dried up. But after his last dive led to the death of his long time associate and friend, Zissou pledges to hunt down and kill the "jaguar shark" that was responsible.
Complicating matters is his eroding marriage with Eleanor (Angelica Huston), who he describes as the "brains of Team Zissou" and the appearance of Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a young Air Force pilot, who may or may not be Zissou's son from a brief relationship some 30 years prior.
Zissou adds Ned to his crew, much to the dismay of longtime shipmate Klaus (Willem Dafoe), who has always seen Zissou as a father figure for himself. Throw in a journalist (Cate Blanchett) on board to capture the high seas drama, and a more organized and better funded rival oceanographer (Jeff Goldblum) and the stage is set for a hilarious adventure.
Well, not quite. Anyone that has seen previous offerings from Anderson, such as "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums," both featuring Murray, know that the humor in his comedies are more skewed and much less direct than the more mainstream comedies. His films generally avoid memorable one-liners and wacky physical comedy. That's not really a criticism, as he is typically very good at presenting humorous situations and characters with little or no explanation. For example, "Life Aquatic" features a varied assortment of Zissou crew members, including one who is usually topless, another who frequently sings David Bowie songs in Portuguese, and a group of interns, who as expected, get some of the more undesirable jobs on the ship.
The ship itself is a marvel in set design, allowing the camera to seamlessly follow the action as it travels along the various sections, with characters moving to and fro.
However, not all the action on the ship is necessarily worth following, as a budding love triangle between Zissou, Ned and Jane, the reporter, feels forced. And the subplot involving a pair of run-ins with a group of pirates is a bit too jarring on the film's overall tone.
At times, the film seems uncertain of what direction it wants to go, but Murray proves to be a solid anchor at helping the film out, just when it threatens to step into the overly whimsical. His portrayal of Zissou as a man seeking to slowly emerge out of the doldrums of his life is the best reason to take this voyage.
(Rated R for language, some drug use, violence and partial nudity.)