In THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU. Wes Anderson, of RUSHMORE and THE ROYAL TENNENBAUMS fame, again works in a rarified atmosphere with his unique auteurs voice that will leave some viewers wondering what all the fuss is about and other flinging hosannas to heaven. He blithely flits from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again with such an agile sleight-of-hand that the two eventually merge into a surprisingly coherent amalgam. Coherent, that is, in this universe where danger and wonder lurk with equal intent to spring upon the unwitting inhabitants of Andersons films.
Its the danger and wonder thats gotten away from the Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) of the title. Hes a documentary filmmaker, and a tired one at that. He used to be a naturalist of great renown, sailing the seas on his research vessel, the Belafonte, and firing the imagination of the public, but somewhere along the way, he traded in the science of the underwater world for the acclaim of starring in his own series of films that create artificial cinematic adventures for the masses and ignore the adventure of real exploration. When we meet him, his latest in a years-long string of flop has just debuted at a Mediterranean film festival to the collective ho-hum of the audience and the condescending assurance of the festival director that they just dont get it. Never mind that the cliff-hanging ending has a crewman being eaten by a jaguar shark and Zissou vowing revenge. Possibly with dynamite. Things are about to get complicated for Zissou, faced as he is with no financing for the second installment of the documentary, Ned (Owen Wilson), the son he never knew he had, an arch and pregnant reporter (Cate Blanchett) writing a magazine story about him while trying to overcome her girlhood crush on him, and the boiling over of the long-simmering antagonism from his brittle heiress wife (Anjelica Huston), the brains of Team Zissou who is given to snit fits, pendulous jewelry and flirting with her ex-husband and current husbands arch-nemesis (Jeff Goldblum),
Murray is yet again a revelation. Melancholy with resignation in his eyes, but clinging to his past glories as tightly, and as painfully, as his Team Zissou Speedos cling to his less than sleek derriere. Life has become the run-through for the clips that will become his films. He is the embodiment of the sort of whimsical angst that suffuses a film populated with characters in various stages of dissatisfaction. As the action become more absurd, combining the cheesiest elements of nature specials, Moby Dick, and Bond films from the 60s, the emotional lives of these characters becomes more complex. And while the look of the film, with its life-sized cutaways of the Belafonte showing its passengers moving from sauna to on-board cutting room, is deliberately mannered, as are the deadpan and sotto-voiced performances, it only serves to make the emotional breakthroughs, or lack thereof, more real in ways that are all the more surprising for being so completely anti-intuitive.
As with his other films, Anderson ventures into treacherous philosophical and emotional territory with deft insouciance. He strips away convention and even logic to reveal the chaos inherent in the human condition, letting the audience in on the joke at the center of it. And its a joke as wondrous and odd as the insistently luminscent electric jellyfish that litter THE LIFE AQUATICs beach.