Steve Zissou is a washed-up Jacques Cousteau type suffering from an Ahab complex and middle-age ennui. His long-time first mate has just been eaten by the mysterious (and fictional) jaguar shark, and although his undersea documentaries haven't turned a profit in years, he's setting sail on one last low-budget oceanography adventure to make one last, rather out-of-character nature film -- about hunting down that shark if it's the last thing he does.
Another eccentric, buoyantly melancholy ensemble piece from wonderfully weird writer-director Wes Anderson ("Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums"), "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" is thick with the curious comedy of crew conflicts, researcher rivalries, laid-back shootouts with kidnapper pirates, and an outlandish underwater world teeming with colorfully imaginary stop-motion creatures created by Henry Selick ("The Nightmare Before Christmas").
But the movie's driving force is Anderson's signature sense of humor. The underlying (and unspoken) joke of this oddball farce is that it is transparently fake. Besides inventing an ocean full of fantastical life, the film is full of mischievous impossibilities, nonsense science, and cinematography designed to make it amusingly clear that the scenes onboard Zissou's run-down, retrofitted, World-War-II surplus sub-hunter ship are shot on a cut-away soundstage set.
Yet Anderson and his grand cast give the characters a wry sincerity that makes them all the more human against the backdrop of their ersatz surroundings. Bringing his brilliance with humorous despondency to his third Anderson picture, Bill Murray strolls his vessel's half-hallways in a cantankerous but contemplative funk, finding plenty of subtle laughs in Zissou's deeply ironic sadness.
On board for his epic quest -- which gets extremely sidetracked by practical needs (they steal equipment from another oceanographer) and personal problems (this ship should have a staff shrink) -- is a bevy of intrepid talent. The sardonic Owen Wilson (an Anderson regular and frequent co-writer) plays the eager-to-please illegitimate son Zissou never knew he had. Cate Blanchett makes a splash as a can-do pregnant reporter riding along to profile the oceanographer, her childhood hero, and becoming quite disillusioned. Willem Dafoe and Noah Taylor are part of Team Zissou as well.
Making their lives harder are Anjelica Huston, dry and cheeky as Zissou's frustrated wife, and Jeff Goldblum, bringing his brand of quirky cockiness to the role of Zissou's avaricious adversary (in love and science) who seems destined to supplant our anti-hero as the pin-up of oceanography nerds the world around.
The melancholy playfulness that has always been Anderson's style doesn't envelop the viewer in this movie's menagerie of human foibles the way it has in his other films. Although resplendent with nuance and imaginative details, "The Life Aquatic" is a little bit undercooked by comparison.
But the wry, idiosyncratic performances from these sublimely devoted stars keep the plot and the humor sailing charismatically -- if not merrily -- along.
Run time: 119 mins
In Theaters: Saturday 25th December 2004
Box Office Worldwide: $34.8M
Distributed by: Empire Pictures
Production compaines: Touchstone Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 73%
Fresh: 11 Rotten: 4
IMDB: 7.3 / 10
Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bill Murray as Steve Zissou, Anjelica Huston as Eleanor Zissou, Cate Blanchett as Jane Winslett-Richardson, Willem Dafoe as Klaus Daimler, Owen Wilson as Ned Plimpton, Jeff Goldblum as Alistair Hennessey, Michael Gambon as Oseary Drakoulias, Noah Taylor as Vladimir Wolodarsky, Bud Cort as Bill Ubell, Seu Jorge as Pelé dos Santos, Matthew Gray Gubler as Intern 1, Antonio Monda as Festival Director, Isabella Blow as Antonia Cook, Seymour Cassel as Esteban, Rob Cohen as Anne-Marie Sakowitz
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