Robin CliffordIn an Italian coastal town, a film society reacts oddly to the twelfth part of a favored documentary series, "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou."
Writer/director Wes Anderson ("Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums") goes to the well once too often with his formula for his highly idiosyncratic cinematic world view. "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" has its small pleasures, but mostly it just flaps around like a dying fish, its quirks colliding awkwardly and sending it off course.
Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is a womanizing Jacques Cousteau-like character, if Cousteau had no real background in marine biology, whose funding is drying up as his popularity wanes. Even after Zissou's most recent film ends with the cliffhanger of his beloved partner Esteban's (Seymour Cassell) death by an unknown shark species, his announcement that the followup will be the hunting of said beast attracts no investors. Things begin to look up when Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) introduces himself as a member of the Zissou Society and, quite possibly, Steve's son. He's also got the cash to fund the next voyage. But once Ned's been recruited into Team Zissou, trouble flares - Ned's wife Eleanor (Angelica Huston) does not approve, Ned's right hand man Klaus (Willem Dafoe) is jealous and Steve finds himself in competition with his son for the favors of comely, pregnant reporter Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett).
There is no mistaking "The Life Aquatic" as an Anderson film. It begins with his beloved proscenium arch which frames Zissou's film and is chaptered with such amusing titles as 'Mutiny on the Bellafonte.' Children come to terms with difficult parental figures and cross-generational romantic rivalry. Team Zissou's collection of 'experts' are a reflection of both the dysfunctional Tenenbaums and Max Fischer's various school clubs.
Writing this time with Noah Baumbach ("Mr. Jealousy") instead of his usual partner of Wilson may be one of the reasons Anderson's brand of melancholy humor never gels this time, but the deadpan line delivery which Anderson has seemingly directed is definitely off. Action scenes, where the Bellafonte is boarded by pirates who kidnap the 'bond company stooge' Bill Ubell (Bud Cort, "Harold and Maude") and where Team Zissou rescues him, look like Anderson filmed kids at play with fake guns - a cute idea perhaps, but one that doesn't sustain itself. Team Zissou may be a self-proclaimed 'bunch of misfits,' but their bumbling lacks any element of slapstick.
Murray's usual wry schtick contains none of the shading that made him so memorable in "Rushmore" and "Lost in Translation." In fact, I only noted one inspired little piece of comedy from the actor when he undulates to the cheesy Euro-synth theme he has piped into his headphones. Otherwise Murray generally seems too lazy to work up any edge to his performance, coming across as vaguely ticked off. Angelica Huston executes deadpan delivery more successfully, wearing hauteur well. Dafoe gets perhaps the most laughs, but he is invaluably assisted by his costuming. Blanchett, the outsider of the group, has the most leeway in creating a character, but she's not a very engaging one. Wilson gives what we've come to expect and is a welcome presence. In smaller roles, Jeff Goldblum as Zissou's wealthier, spacey rival and cult favorite Bud Cort add their own flavors, but crew members played by Noah Taylor ("Shine"), Robyn Cohen, Niels Koizumi, Waris Ahluwalia and Pawel Wdowczak are mere wallpaper. "City of God's" Seu Jorge, on the other hand, makes a huge contribution with his acoustic covers of old Bowie songs sung in Portuguese.
Aquatic themes have been slowly growing in Anderson's films and stop-motional animator Henry Selick ("The Nightmare Before Christmas") is brought aboard the production to create delightful, candy-colored sea creatures, but production designer Mark Friedberg doesn't create an environment worthy of them. A cross section of the Bellafonte lets us watch its crew at work like an ant farm, but has none of the character definition of the Tenenbaum mansion created by David Wasco. Underwater sequences are only notable for the creatures they contain. Milena Canonero is more up to the task of equaling the work of Anderson's former costume designer Karen Patch, outfitting the Team in matching baby blue jumpsuits and Speedos all topped with unique red caps (or turban in the case of cameraman Vikram). Composer Mark Mothersbaugh's score sounds like a rehashing of his earlier work with Anderson, but music supervisor Randall Poster once again proves invaluable with his song selections.
Watching "The Life Aquatic" calls to mind the old adage 'Dying is easy...comedy is hard.' Using elements that have worked before, Anderson can't keep this film afloat.
Robin's review coming soon!
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