New York Times Movie Review

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

A Seagoing Showcase of Human Collectibles

Published: December 10, 2004

There may be filmmakers more idiosyncratic than Wes Anderson - Jean-Luc Godard is still alive and shooting, after all - but there is no one who can match Mr. Anderson's devotion to his own idiosyncrasy. In his last movie, "The Royal Tenenbaums" (2001), the director and his writing partner, Owen Wilson, confected a parallel-universe Manhattan of moody tennis players, neurasthenic playwrights and rambling mansions, burying a touching story of child prodigies and prodigal parents in tchotchkes and bric-a-brac. At the time, some of us who had admired Mr. Anderson's first two films, "Bottle Rocket" and "Rushmore," complained that his delicate combination of whimsy and emotional purity was sliding into preciousness.

"The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," based on a script by Mr. Anderson and Noah Baumbach, goes even further, conjuring an imaginary world that encompasses wild ocean-faring technologies and fanciful species of computer-animated fish. Rather than tacking toward the shore of realism, Mr. Anderson blithely heads for the open sea of self-indulgent make-believe. As someone who was more annoyed than charmed by "Tenenbaums," I should have been completely exasperated with "The Life Aquatic," with its wispy story and wonder-cabinet production design, but to my surprise I found it mostly delightful.

Some of this has to do with Bill Murray, who occupies nearly every frame of the picture, usually sighing and frowning right in the middle of the screen. Mr. Anderson favors static, head-on compositions stuffed with beguiling details, and Mr. Murray holds still for him, allowing the audience's eyes to peruse his carefully arranged surroundings.

The actor's quiet, downcast presence modulates the antic busyness that encircles him, and his performance is a triumph of comic minimalism. Like Gene Hackman's Royal Tenenbaum, Mr. Murray's Steve Zissou is a flawed, solipsistic patriarch, though his defining emotion is not intemperate anger but a vague, wistful tristesse. His doughy face fringed by a grizzled Ernest Hemingway beard and topped by a red watch cap, Mr. Murray turns tiny gestures and sly, off-beat line readings into a deadpan tour-de-force, at once utterly ridiculous and curiously touching.

Zissou is a famous ocean explorer whose undersea adventures have less to do with scientific research than with pop-culture branding. He makes movies, administers a vast fan club, and keeps his eye out for merchandising opportunities. When we first meet him, at the premiere of his latest "Life Aquatic" documentary, he is beset with troubles. His trusty sidekick (Seymour Cassel) has been eaten by a mysterious shark (on which Zissou vows Ahab-like revenge) and Eleanor, his wife and business partner (Anjelica Huston), seems to be gravitating back into the orbit of her ex-husband, Alastair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), Zissou's slick, reptilian arch-rival. Meanwhile, a nosy reporter (Cate Blanchett) talks her way onto Zissou's boat, joined by Ned Plimpton (Mr. Wilson), a guileless, pipe-smoking young man from Kentucky who may or may not be the captain's long-lost illegitimate son.

Having established a rather hectic set of narrative premises (and I have provided only a partial list), Mr. Anderson proceeds to treat them casually, dropping in swatches of action and feeling when they suit his atmospheric purposes. He is less a storyteller than an observer and an arranger of odd human specimens. "The Life Aquatic" is best compared to a lavishly illustrated, haphazardly plotted picture book - albeit one with frequent profanity and an occasional glimpse of a woman's breasts - the kind dreamy children don't so much read start to finish as browse and linger over, finding fuel for their own reveries.

There is, to be sure, a certain willful, show-off capriciousness in this approach to filmmaking, but there is also a great deal of generosity. Mr. Anderson and Mr. Baumbach have built a magpie's nest of borrowed and reconditioned cultural flotsam - from Jacques Cousteau to Tintin and beyond - but the purpose of their pastiche is less to show how cool they are than to revel in, and share, a childish delight in collecting and displaying strange and enchanting odds and ends. If you allow yourself to surrender to "The Life Aquatic," you may find that its slow, meandering pace and willful digressions are inseparable from its pleasures.

Not that it's all fun and games. The bright colors and crazy gizmos are washed over with a strange, free-floating pathos that occasionally attaches itself to the characters, but that seems in the end to be more an aspect of the film's ambience than of its dramatic situations. Zissou's world-weary melancholy, the utter seriousness with which he goes about being absurd, contains an element of inconsolable nostalgia. He is a child's fantasy of adulthood brought to life, and at the same time an embodiment of the longing for a return to childhood that colors so much of grown-up life.

In my ideal cinémathèque, "The Life Aquatic" would play on a permanent double bill with "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie." Mr. Anderson and Stephen Hillenburg, Mr. Squarepants's creator, share not only a taste for nautical nonsense, but also a willingness to carry the banner of unfettered imaginative silliness into battle against the tyranny of maturity.

They also both understand the sublimity that well-chosen pop music can impart even to throwaway moments. The seaborne contrivances of "The Life Aquatic" may make you a little queasy, but the soundtrack is impossible to argue with. It consists mainly of early David Bowie songs - "Queen Bitch," "Space Oddity," "Five Years" and the like - sung samba style, in lilting Brazilian Portuguese, by Seu Jorge. Like much else in the movie, these songs seem to come from another world: one which is small, crowded and, on its own skewed terms, oddly perfect.

"The Life Aquatic" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has swearing, some partial nudity and a few scenes of bloodshed.

'The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou'

Opens today in Manhattan and Los Angeles.

Directed by Wes Anderson; written by Mr. Anderson and Noah Baumbach; director of photography, Robert D. Yeoman; animation by Henry Selik; music by Mark Mothersbaugh; production designer, Mark Friedberg; produced by Mr. Anderson, Barry Mendel and Scott Rudin; released by Touchstone Pictures. Running time: 118 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Bill Murray (Steve Zissou), Owen Wilson (Ned Plimpton), Cate Blanchett (Jane), Anjelica Huston (Eleanor Zissou), Willem Dafoe (Klaus Daimler), Jeff Goldblum (Hennessey), Michael Gambon (Drakoulious), Bud Cort (Bill Ubell) and Seymour Cassel (Esteban de Plantier).