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'Life Aquatic': A Comedy That Misses The Boat

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 25, 2004; Page C01

There's nothing wrong with Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" that a digital insertion of Gene Hackman wouldn't solve.

Hackman, all energy and sly menace, was the mesmerizing central figure in Anderson's last film, the brilliant "The Royal Tenenbaums." It was a kind of Homeric odyssey of family dysfunction, set among a rich, twisted clan of New Yorkers. Hackman, a father who was both merry and clearly from hell, made it snap, crackle and pop.

Dilute with water: Bill Murray plays a dysfunctional oceanographer, interviewed here by Cate Blanchett's journalist, out for revenge in "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou." (Philippe Antonello -- Touchstone Pictures)

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In "The Life Aquatic," another study of family dysfunction on a Russian-front scale, the similar role -- a father figure, as full of bitterness as he is of love, unable to control his aggressive impulses, his libidinal urges, his greed, his sloppiness, his expectation of eternal centrality -- goes to Bill Murray. It's not that Murray isn't a great comic actor. He is. But even though he's worked with Anderson before, he's weirdly wrong for this role.

Somehow his passivity -- his stock in trade, his signature, usually a beloved asset -- seems to open a hole in the center of the story. He never seems as dynamic, or as demonic, as Hackman, and the cast around him isn't given much to act against. His diffidence hamstrings the movie. He has the weight of smoke or fog; just as you get close to him, he seems to separate.

He plays Steve Zissou, a kind of low-rent, shabby would-be Jacques Cousteau (now that's a funny idea!). Headquartered on an island somewhere in the Mediterranean, he is the star-producer-director of listless scuba-adventure documentaries, though it soon becomes clear that he doesn't know or care much about the ocean or what happens under it. If he once had passion he's now lost it, and the film opens at a film festival, with his latest production, a comically lame story of his adventures encountering the never-seen "jaguar shark," which kills his best friend.

Anderson, who's evidently been to a few of these, has a wondrous touch with the absurdities of the life festivalistic, especially from the loser's end. People stream out of the screening, and afterward, in a mostly empty auditorium at the Q and A, there are very few Q's, and the A's from the ridiculous Steve (his trademark is the French mariner's little red knit hat) are unfocused or emotionally blunt. When he announces that his new film will be about his attempt to track down the jaguar shark and kill it, he's asked by an offended animal lover, What would be the point? It's Murray's best moment -- perhaps that's why it's in all the ads -- as his face knits in surprise that such stupidity is allowed and he blurts without thought in a tone of absolute, comic-intense moral certainty: "Revenge."

The rest of the film follows that voyage in a more or less loopy fashion, bringing in vivid characters and sharp situations that dominate, then disappear. With typical Anderson brio, the characters never hem or haw: They just state their naked desires deadpan, so that we always know where they are, where they stand, what they want.

Michael Gambon has a brilliantly funny turn as Zissou's moneyman, a cosmopolitan charmer of dubious morality who has all the mannerisms of an old Brit theater queen. Then there's Steve's estranged wife, Eleanor, played by Anjelica Huston in a snit of utter disinterest in her hubby; his first mate, the pathetic, loony Klaus (Willem Dafoe); some much-abused interns; a gal who never puts her blouse on; and finally Cate Blanchett as a journalist who comes aboard the ship -- called "The Belafonte" and if you don't see the humor in that, maybe this isn't the movie for you -- to do either a puff piece or a rip job, depending.

But the dramatic crux of the story (well, to the extent that it is dramatic and has a crux) is the arrival of Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson, Anderson's longtime chum and collaborator) who may or may not be Steve's son from a one-nighter 29 years earlier. Ned and Steve spar and almost bond, compete over Blanchett (pregnant at the time of filming, so the pregnancy is built into the character), hunt the giant shark, loot a more prosperous oceanographer's lab, flub around in the water a lot and observe interesting, computerized fish specimens whose cartooniness helps establish the not terribly serious tone.

It's funny when Zissou snaps "Intern! Campari and ice!" instead of providing the sentimentalized mentoring that internships are officially about. It's funny when the aggrieved Klaus become jealous of Ned and slaps him. Ned retorts by threatening. Then Ned slaps him. That's not fair, Klaus explains huffily: Slap equals threat. But another slap throws the whole apparatus out of equilibrium.

Then, surprisingly, the tone shifts somewhat. Pirates attack, kidnap somebody, there's violence -- Steve kills one in a gunfight -- and suddenly we're in life-and-death straits. Still, Anderson plays this for laughs -- almost. This development introduces an element of mortality into the film, and later, when a major character dies, it's stunning but somehow not unexpected. The pirate sequence essentially is a passage by which the Belafonte sails from comedy to reality.

"The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" never quite comes together. It's not merely the sudden shift of tone or the star as the man who never was, it's that the film seems more an accumulation of moments -- many of them hilarious -- than a consciously crafted story. At the end of the zany "Royal Tenenbaums" you knew you'd seen something. In this one, you walk out thinking, Now what the hell was that all about?

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity, drug use, violence and nudity.

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