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Under the Sea

Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" falls short.

11:00 PM, Dec 22, 2004 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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FEW WRITER-DIRECTORS range as widely in tone and composition as Wes Anderson. His debut, the 1996 film Bottle Rocket, was a jittery, loose, and very independent comedy. Two years later, he made Rushmore, a film with movie stars and a tightly-scripted plot. Rushmore was still a comedy, but its humor was more sophisticated and wry than Bottle Rocket. Even though both films were written by Anderson and Owen Wilson, and directed by Anderson, they could have come from entirely different minds.

In 2001, Anderson made another evolutionary leap. Still writing with Wilson, he directed The Royal Tenenbaums, which may well be the most underappreciated movie of the last 20 years (the only other candidate would be Michael Mann's brilliant, overlooked 1999 film, The Insider). Like a Patek Philippe, Tenenbaums works with complete precision, the many interlocking characters spinning and grinding without a tick of wasted motion. Incredibly funny, smart, and sweet, Tenenbaums is a stealthily significant achievement.

Anderson's new movie, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, is a step backward, or perhaps two steps sideways. Working with a new writing partner, indie writer-director Noah Baumbach, Anderson has mixed the tone and intricacy of Tenenbaums with the meandering free verse of Bottle Rocket. Certain of his fans--namely those who prefer early Anderson--will appreciate this new mode.

THE LIFE AQUATIC tells the story of washed-up marine-adventurer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), whose documentaries have fallen out of favor with a once-adoring French public. During his previous expedition, Zissou lost his first-mate to a mysterious, shark-like creature, and at the movie's outset, Zissou has vowed to find the shark and kill it. "What would be the scientific purpose of killing it?" one French interviewer asks. Zissou pauses, looks calmly at the audience, and answers, "Revenge."

Zissou sets out to sea with his odd-ball crew, a reporter from Oceanographic magazine, and a man, Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), who may or may not be his bastard son. There are conflicts galore. The reporter, Jane (Cate Blanchett), is pregnant with the child of a man married to someone else. Zissou's wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) has left him for rival oceanographer Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum). The man who handles Zissou's financing, Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon), is about to be expelled from France. Zissou's topless script girl, Anne-Marie Sakowitz, (Robyn Cohen), is organizing a mutiny. And then there are the pirates.

Yet despite these fine contrivances, The Life Aquatic doesn't deliver in fully satisfying ways. The film wanders here and there; conflicts surface and recede without resolution. Humor lies in dense patches, but the overall effect is not particularly funny. Anderson's attention to odd detail remains. The cut-away set he uses for the ship is gorgeous and his compositions within the frame are striking. Much of the movie's score is provided by shipmate Pelé (Seu Jorge), who lays about strumming a guitar and singing old pop songs--such as David Bowie's "Space Oddity"--in Portuguese.

These details are rewarding, and The Life Aquatic is not without its charms. Blanchett's Jane, for instance, probably deserves an entire movie to herself. But in the end, The Life Aquatic does not hang together.

Who is to blame? Perhaps the new writing arrangement is responsible for the movie's undisciplined untidiness. But neither Baumbach nor Anderson should shoulder the load alone. The cast is full of fine actors, but even Murray and Wilson--two men who can do no wrong in my book--fail to get firm handles on their characters.

The Life Aquatic is a disappointment. It is the kind of noble disappointment, however, which leaves you eager to see what Wes Anderson does with his next project.

Jonathan V. Last is the film critic for The Daily Standard. He also runs the blog Galley Slaves.

Correction appended 1/4/05: The article originally identified the David Bowie song as "Ground Control to Major Tom." The correct title is "Space Oddity."