In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, one sees other actors besides Bill Murray - quite a lot of them, actually - but there are really no other performances to speak of. This is his movie, and everyone else, no matter how large a role they have, is really just a walk-on. Now, to your average filmgoer, this sounds like a fine thing, after all, one doesn't often say, "I would have liked that movie more if there'd been less Bill Murray." (Except Garfield.) Oddly enough, this film-long tribute to Murray, with a script lovingly crafted for his deadpan delivery by Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums) and Noah Baumbach (filmcritic.com favorite Kicking And Screaming), is replete with stabs of comedic genius but never quite takes off.
Murray ambles through his performance as oceanographer Steve Zissou, whose longtime partner was just eaten by a rare species of shark ("which may or may not exist") and is determined to set off on an expedition to find the shark and kill it. When asked what scientific purpose this would satisfy, Zissou gives an almost imperceptible shrug and says, "revenge." Much in the same way that Luke Wilson's Richie in The Royal Tenenbaums had long outlived his brief fame as tennis pro by the time the film started, in Life Aquatic, Zissou's best days are already behind him, and the film is littered with the detritus of his past glory, many of them '70s-style nostalgia items like a special edition tennis shoe or a pinball machine featuring his bearded visage. The funding for Zissou's increasingly poorly-received films is drying up, it looks like his wife is about to leave him, and there's a reporter nosing around asking painful questions. So Zissou's expedition - a half-assed, barely-planned affair - is much less a research trip than a has-been's last hurrah, a perpetually stoned Ahab hunting his white whale (or jaguar shark, in this case).
Accompanying him on this voyage is the multinational crew of Team Zissou, ranging from the manically depressed handyman Klaus (Willem Dafoe, shockingly funny) to Pelé (Seu Jorge), who doesn't do much but perform acoustic Portuguese renditions of Bowie songs. The filmmakers also toss on board Owen Wilson, playing Ned Plimpton, a pilot from Kentucky who just might be Zissou's bastard son ("I would have named you Kingsley") and is tagging along to get to know his father. Complications ensue when both men fall in love with the reporter, a radiantly pregnant Cate Blanchett who's unfortunately saddled with a fairly ludicrous, semi-Aussie accent. It's a wonderfully misfit bunch, and enough can't be said about the boat itself, a banged-up jalopy that's lovingly designed like some sort of floating boy's clubhouse, complete with sauna, wine collection, and a pair of trained albino dolphins with cameras strapped to their heads. Oh, and everybody on the team wears a uniform red cap and has a Glock strapped to their thigh.
Although The Life Aquatic is replete with the out-of-left-field manias and non-sequiturs one expects from a Wes Anderson film, unlike Rushmore or the far superior Tenenbaums, there's no real conflict to push its characters into action. With his primary nemesis a possibly mythical shark, zero chemistry between himself and Wilson, and no human adversaries who prove any real contest (with the exception of the regal and underused Anjelica Huston as his caustic wife), Murray doesn't have anybody else to play off of. This is a critical flaw, as Murray's best moments usually come when his anger has a target, here his sarcastic ennui simply envelops the film and drains it of momentum, further enhancing the already dreamlike atmosphere. One could be tempted to read this whole film as a delusion taking place inside Zissou's mind, because although Anderson's films have always flirted with the fantastic, they were never this determinedly strange. Surrealism flickers through The Life Aquatic, especially in the lizards and underwater creatures animated by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) and purposefully looking like nothing that has ever actually existed.
Even though Team Zissou doesn't have much of a clear mission and the film's subplots are scattered willy-nilly, Anderson and Baumbach's script finds plenty of ways to keep viewers engaged. (The writers know one crucial thing: Everything is better with pirates.) It's a fully realized cartoon world, with daring rescues, an awesome headquarters (Team Zissou has its own Mediterranean island compound) and some of the coolest sidekicks ever, all set to Jorge's hauntingly beautiful singing. This may a film composed only of little moments, ah, but what moments they are.
Criterion offers the DVD of Life Aquatic, with two discs of rollicking fun. A commentary from Anderson and Baumbach is backed by documentaries, talk show footage, outtakes, deleted scenes, and ten video recordings of the reimagined David Bowie songs from the film.
All aboard the love train.