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Drowning at sea

A review of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (R)

The oceanographic Team Zissou (left to right; Waris - Ahluwalia, Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, Noah Taylor, Seu - Jorge) are rescued once again by the brilliant Eleanor - (Anjelica Huston, right).
  • The oceanographic Team Zissou (left to right; Waris Ahluwalia, Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, Noah Taylor, Seu Jorge) are rescued once again by the brilliant Eleanor (Anjelica Huston, right).

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (R)

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou proves three things about director Wes Anderson: 1. He's America's finest purveyor of cinematic fruitcake. 2. He's a good director, albeit one in need of some new ideas. 3. He's the kind of director who, if given enough money, can produce a disaster.

The Life Aquatic is not quite a disaster. Anderson is, after all, a good director. He fills this movie with the same quirky visual pageantry, dialogue and cinematography that made his previous two films, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, so endearing. And this time around, he's got the budget to let his imagination run wild. But the movie disappoints overall. Far too cute, lacking in plot and often tedious, Aquatic takes the viewer on a nautical voyage that quickly founders on the rocks.

Anderson mainstay Bill Murray plays Steve Zissou, a kind of washed-up Jacques Cousteau character. In the film's first scene, at an Italian premiere of Zissou's latest documentary, we learn that a "jaguar shark" killed Zissou's longtime expedition partner and best friend. Zissou announces his next documentary voyage will be to find and kill the shark. When asked why, Murray delivers the line in his celebrated deadpan fashion: "Revenge."

Owen Wilson, another frequent face in Anderson's films, plays Ned, a sober young pilot who claims to be Zissou's illegitimate son and who accompanies him on the voyage.

Anjelica Huston, who was great in Tenenbaums, reappears as well -- this time as Zissou's estranged wife.

The trip out to sea also brings a host of sycophantic characters dressed in "Team Zissou" red watch caps, Speedos and blue pajamas. Also in the mix, Cate Blanchett plays Jane, a pregnant magazine journalist who comes along to write a portrait of Zissou on his voyage of revenge.

The problem for the viewer is that this voyage never really goes anywhere and the crew of the Belafonte appears to take the entire ludicrous enterprise at face value. There's even a Brazilian on board whose only job is to sing David Bowie songs in Portuguese. Of course, there's supposed to be drama and plot such as Steve, Ned and Jane's love-hate triangle, a pirate takeover of the Belafonte and Steve's rivalry with his sea documentary nemesis, Alistair Hennessy (Jeff Goldblum). But unlike Anderson's previous films, in The Life Aquatic these characters' petty hatreds and aspirations never strike an emotional chord. The film's central question -- Is this Zissou guy really washed up? -- remains largely unanswered. The film falls flat, and without Anderson's trademark campy attention to detail, it would be boring.

Perhaps Anderson should look for new themes to exercise his extraordinary skill. Aquatic plays on a theme shared by both Rushmore and Tenenbaums: a protagonist finds riches and privilege; riches and privilege warp the individual's ability to cope with reality; then riches and privilege disappear and the individual is left a neurotic wreck.

In The Life Aquatic, Anderson himself becomes victim of his own artistic theme. After conquering the movie world before the age of 35, the money and expectations must be getting to his head. How else can the pajamas and David Bowie songs be accounted for?

Hopefully Anderson can return to form by picking new themes. However, judging by the hilariously fake action scenes in Aquatic -- including an excellent spoof of Akira Kurosawa in the island invasion scene -- he's not the man to go after action films. Aquatic could well become a cult classic of sorts, and with its level of detail it probably improves with repeat viewings. But the viewer is advised to arrive at the theater well caffeinated and with expectations at a minimum.

-- Dan Wilcock

Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown

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