A Wes Anderson film is always a thing of inspired, calculated madness, so much like his other films that you’d think he made them all in the same month. His previous movies, “Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” established his template, and now “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” fills in the blanks again.
I say this as a Wes Anderson fan, but one who is becoming slightly less enamored of Anderson’s cinematic tricks as time goes on. “The Life Aquatic” is a delight, but it doesn’t feel as fresh and surprising as, say, “Rushmore” did. Still, I’ll take a filmmaker who keeps using the same interesting devices over one who doesn’t even know any.
The title character, played with typically understated aplomb by Bill Murray, is an oceanographer on the order of Jacques Cousteau, once a hailed documentarian but now in his waning years. His latest film, “The Life Aquatic Part 1,” is greeted tepidly at a film festival, perhaps because audiences have grown out of ocean documentaries. Steve Zissou’s work is pure ’60s-style cheese, resembling the short films we used to watch in elementary school.
Steve’s personal life is as somber as his professional life. His wife and business partner, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) — who many whisper is the brains behind the operation — is only barely on Steve’s side after having been, at one point, the lover of Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), Steve’s chief rival in the cutthroat world of oceanography. Adding to his grief is the fact that his best friend Esteban was eaten by a jaguar shark while filming “The Life Aquatic Part 1.” With little else left to lose, Steve has decided the goal of his next voyage will be to find and destroy the offending fish.
His ship, the Belafonte, is staffed by a loyal group of experts, (including Willem Dafoe as German cinematographer Klaus Daimler) and a handful of college interns, who are there (as are many elements in the film) mainly because Wes Anderson thought it would be amusing to put them there. They are joined by Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), a high-voiced British journalist for Oceanographic Explorer magazine who is doing a story on Steve. He hates the intrusion, but he needs the publicity.
They are also joined, at the last minute, by one Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a genteel pilot for a Kentucky-based airline. He is a life-long Steve Zissou fan and, according to his now-deceased mother, Steve’s illegitimate son, too. Steve and Eleanor have no children. If he is to have a son before he dies, it will have to be Ned.
And so the crew embarks on a marvelous journey, looking for the jaguar shark, fleeing Hennessey because they stole his state-of-the-art equipment, running afoul of pirates (yes, pirates!), and putting up with the presence of a “bond company stooge” who’s there to make sure Steve doesn’t violate the terms of his insurance policy.
There is loopiness at every turn, like the crew member who serenades us with guitar-accompanied David Bowie songs sung in Portuguese, or the other crew member, a woman, who is always topless. Anderson belongs to the same school of filmmaking as the Coen Brothers, where even the characters with only a couple lines are brimming with kooky personality.
Steve Zissou is played with such precise sadness, longing and relentlessly off-kilter behavior by Bill Murray that many viewers will be turned off by his performance and will be upset when he gets nominated for another Oscar. Indeed, many viewers will be turned off by the film altogether, as it is surreal and stylized, with even ordinary conversations about ordinary things getting the Wes Anderson treatment (he co-wrote the script with Noah Baumbach).
But I think Murray is brilliant here, and superbly nuanced. He is emotionally closed-off, but not unfeeling. In fact, his keen sensitivity is why he’s closed-off, a preemptive strike against potential sorrow. Seeing him and Wilson bond as father and possible son — bond in their own peculiar Andersonian way, that is — is evidence of the film’s softer side.
But the fact remains that the film, like Steve Zissou, is emotionally distant. You almost have to work at it to feel what Steve and Ned are feeling, and I don’t think it’s wise of Anderson to make audiences have to toil just to get his point. If you don’t go to the effort, you’ll still come away having seen a very funny movie, but you’ll have missed some of the depth.
B (1 hr., 58 min.; )