Not much below the surface of The Life Aquatic

Dec. 28, 2004, midnight | By Pria Anand | 19 years, 5 months ago

Idiosyncratic filmmaker Wes Anderson is constantly devoted to evoking new worlds for his audience to venture into, from the confused mind of a precocious 15-year-old in Rushmore to the off-the-wall dysfunction of The Royal Tenenbaums. In his latest and arguably most ambitious endeavor, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson plumbs the depths of imagination to create an entire undersea kingdom.

The Life Aquatic is disarmingly charming, but falls short of anything more in part because of its lack of balance; Anderson neglects the story's emotional development in favor of quirky humor, and although the majority of the film carefully toes the line between fantasy and reality, the latter abruptly wins out in the end.

The film follows oddball oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), a documentary filmmaker in the vein of Jacques Costeau and William Beebe who finances his fantastic expeditions with inherited wealth from his "rich [expletive]" wife, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston). At the peak of his popularity, Zissou's films received international acclaim, but fame is a fickle friend, and Zissou is slowly slipping out of favor. "You know I haven't been at my best this past decade," he explains.

Things take a Moby Dick-esque turn when Zissou's best friend, Esteban (Seymour Cassel) is devoured by what Zissou refers to as "the jaguar shark." Zissou takes it upon himself to exact revenge, accompanied by a motley crew united by nothing more than an adoration of Zissou, matching red caps and Speedos. Along the way, he encounters Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a Kentucky Air pilot who may or may not be his son, reporter Jane Winslet-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) and a ridiculous subplot involving a band of Filipino pirates.

Huston and Wilson, both Anderson regulars, give solid performances, although Wilson's southern accent could stand some improvement. However, Murray, previously of both Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, carries most of the film's laughs with his poker-faced delivery. Also notable is the appearance of Bud Cort, star of 70s cult classic Harold and Maude, as the ship's "bond company stooge"; in fact, The Life Aquatic shares much of its deadpan humor and choppy style with the earlier film.

The film is sectioned off by an exceptional soundtrack that's as much a product of Anderson's peculiarity as the film itself. Each chapter opens with a David Bowie song rendered anew in lilting Brazilian Portuguese by Seu Jorge (City of God), who also plays a member of the crew.

Comparisons between The Life Aquatic, this year's Christmas Day indy darling, and Tim Burton's Big Fish, last year's Christmas Day indy darling, are inevitable. Both blur the boundary between fact and endearing fiction, and Burton and Anderson share a sharp wit and over-the-top style. In fact, the fantastical creatures who inhabit the waters of The Life Aquatic"from the tiny, pinstriped "crayon ponyfish" to the multi-colored "electric jellyfish" that fill miles of beach with pulsating lights "owe their bizarre realism to a previous Burton collaborator, animator Henry Sellick.

However, while Big Fish develops the dramatic aspects of its story, the relationship between Zissou and the man who is "probably" his son in The Life Aquatic is largely obscured by Anderson's wacky humor, and most of the film's emotional connections" familial, romantic and otherwise" are neglected until mere minutes before the closing credits roll.

Still, The Life Aquatic manages to stay afloat through the sheer pervasiveness of its enchanting absurdity; it's not hard to be drawn into Anderson's watery realm of sugar crabs, jaguar sharks and affable dreamers, even if there's not much more to it.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (110 minutes) is rated R for language, some drug use, violence and partial nudity. Area theaters

Pria Anand. Pria is a senior. She loves Silver Chips, movies and, most likely, you. More »

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