- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 2004

“The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” never lets you forget you’re watching a Wes Anderson movie. And Bill Murray, who plays the title character, a spoofy, Jacques Cousteau-style oceanographer-filmmaker, never lets you forget you’re watching a Bill Murray movie.

Mr. Anderson, the director, and Mr. Murray have paired before, in the “The Royal Tenenbaums” (much better) and “Rushmore” (much, much better). “Aquatic,” opening tomorrow, is the work of two ironists gone mad. There’s no sense here that they think their art is meaningful or worth your money; “Aquatic,” in that way, is a grand insult.

And there’s a palpable fear that if they put their necks on the line for a story with a recognizable heart, the wised-up world would just chop them off. So the director and actor, both nominated for Academy Awards in the last few years, respond with a chilly archness. The movie is a joke that laughs at you if you laugh at it.

Where’s the Bill Murray of “Lost in Translation,” with his affecting touch and whisper? The ennui is here, along with naturalistic gray beard and sagging paunch, but the humanity is missing.

Mr. Murray’s Zissou is a washed-up, pot-toking adventurer with an estranged wife (Angelica Huston of “Tenenbaums”), no grant money and a public that suspects he’s a phony. Mr. Anderson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Noah Baumbach, introduces a glum Zissou in an opera house, where his latest oceanographic documentary is screening before a jaded black-tie audience. In a Q&A; session, they have the gall to question whether a jaguar shark had actually eaten Zissou’s teammate Esteban, as his movie suggests.

Ahab-like, Zissou vows to track down the great beast that killed his friend. Problem is, he’s not much good at seafaring. Eleanor (Miss Huston) is the brains — and the financial brawn — behind “Team Zissou.”

Incompetence, either deliberate or innate, is one of Mr. Anderson’s favorite character foibles. Think of the botched robbery attempt in “Bottle Rocket” or Jason Schwartzman’s bad grades in “Rushmore.”

Team Zissou is neither competent nor incompetent; it’s a two-hour dry aside muttered through the corner of the mouth. The crew wears matching red knit caps and thigh-holstered Glocks. Pele dos Santos (Seu Jorge) is onboard for no other reason than to play a nylon-stringed guitar and sing David Bowie songs in Portuguese. It’s funny the first three times. Willem Dafoe tries on a German accent as insecure cameraman Klaus Daimler, and he’s quite funny. Someone forgot to tell him not to act.

The ship, the Belafonte, looks cool, but we’re strictly in movie land. Mr. Anderson and cinematography partner Robert D. Yeoman throw in a few wide shots of a real vessel at sea, but, below decks, they want the viewer to know it’s a very clever set construction. The Belafonte’s innards are like the open-faced pods of “Hollywood Squares,” the camera seamlessly glides from room to room. Again, clever. But who outside of USC film school students will care?

I will say Mr. Anderson has an unerring eye for detail. The Commodore-era computer monitors and a multicolored pen (you remember, the kind with the rainbow console that controlled the ink-flow) made me laugh and wonder, pleasantly, just what year we were in. There are also some arresting CGI representations of various underwater creatures.

As for the rest of it, I couldn’t have cared less. Jeff Goldblum is as annoyingly smarmy as ever as Zissou’s better-financed archrival at sea, Alistair Hennessey, who may or may not be homosexual. Cate Blanchett is a gum-snapping reporter who reads Proust to her unborn child. Owen Wilson plays “Air Kentucky” pilot Ned Plimpton, who may or may not be Zissou’s illegitimate son and becomes Miss Blanchett’s lover.

Hidden in the algae, these last two characters comprise the movie’s heart: an examination of nonblood family connections. But, really, they’re a copout. They’re window dressing for a movie that is more interested in showing us grown men in silver wet suits storm a South Pacific beach to rescue a “bond company stooge” (Bud Cort) from a gang of Filipino pirates.

Ground control to Major Anderson: It’s not absurdism. It’s just absurd.

**

TITLE: “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”

RATING: R (Profanity, drug use, violence, partial nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Wes Anderson. Produced by Mr. Anderson, Barry Mendel and Scott Rudin. Written by Mr. Anderson and Noah Baumbach. Cinematography by Robert D. Yeoman. Original music by Mark Mothersbaugh.

RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.lifeaquatic.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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