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'Life Aquatic': Just Coasting

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2004; Page WE34

OKAY, THIS is where I face the corner like a bad schoolboy, ashamed, embarrassed and saddened not to be raving wildly about "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou."

Go ahead. Start throwing stuff. Write "Kick Me" on a piece of paper and tape it to my back. It's not what you want to hear, I know. I liked Wes Anderson's latest movie, which stars Bill Murray, but I wanted to like it more. There's a lot to enjoy in this seagoing comedy, including the Brazilian guy (Seu Jorge from "City of God") who, throughout the movie, sings breathy samba versions of 1970s David Bowie songs. You haven't lived until you've heard "Rebel Rebel" with a mournful, midnight-in-Rio flavor. But for the most part, "Life Aquatic" hovers frustratingly somewhere between charming and only mildly amusing.

Michael Gambon, from left, Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, Anjelica Huston and Waris Ahluwalia take off on an ocean adventure in Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou." (Philippe Antonello -- Touchstone Pictures)

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To the extent that plot means much in an Anderson movie, Murray plays the fifty-something Steve Zissou, a bearded, American version of Jacques Cousteau. He sails around the world with a devoted crew (on the Belafonte, a ship converted from a submarine), filming his oceanographic endeavors and selling them as documentaries.

But lately, interest in Steve's films seems to be dwindling. He can't get money for the next installment of his series. Steve decides it's time to spice up his operation for the cameras. So he decides to take revenge on the elusive jaguar shark that took his friend and top diver, Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel), at the end of Part One. And when Navy man Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) appears in Steve's life, claiming to be his long-lost son, Steve figures that'll put some reality-TV melodrama into the proceedings.

Ned shows the kind of emerging leadership a father would hope of a son. And Steve's newfound affection for him makes the ship's very Germanic engineer Klaus (Willem Dafoe) jealous. Steve is plagued by a rival on the seas, Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), who commands a slick vessel complete with uniformed minions, and is the ex-husband of Steve's wife, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston). There's a quirky and pregnant English journalist (Cate Blanchett, apparently unable to completely shake off her Katharine Hepburn shtick from "The Aviator"), who seems to be trying to discredit Steve. And there's a bond company stooge (Bud Cort) aboard, who may only be in the movie as a salute to Cort's role in the 1971 "Harold and Maude."

Murray, who has now appeared in three Anderson films, including the wonderful "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums," is the movie's best hope, a deadpan, shaggy seadog who watches this oddball world around him with a mixture of world-weariness and detached amusement. But most of the other characters seem to have been implanted arbitrarily -- even for a story that's already about serendipity and arbitrariness. They are single-trait beings, one-dimensional quirkos, and Murray brushes through them like a kid kicking through leaves.

You don't feel much in the way of meaningful character interaction, although Wilson comes the closest as the goofy prodigal son. But given Wilson's terrific presence as Dignan in Anderson's debut, "Bottle Rocket," he is a mild disappointment. Ultimately, "Life Aquatic" is a potboiler that doesn't seem pressed to do more than bubble contentedly. The small-scale gags, riffs and motifs that worked so brightly in "Bottle Rocket" and the terrific follow-up, "Rushmore," seem to simmer with less incident here. It's eccentricity for eccentricity's sake. And that's the kind of formula Anderson's films are not supposed to be about.

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (R, 118 minutes) -- Contains nudity, drug use, obscenity and some violence. Opens Saturday. Area theaters.

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