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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

(2004) ** 1/2 R
118 min. Touchstone Pictures. Director: Wes Anderson. Cast: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum, Bud Cort.

"I'm sorry—I know I haven't been at my best this past decade." So says oceanic explorer Steve Zissou, the latest in a string of writer-director Wes Anderson's helplessly horrid heroes. Like Gene Hackman's Royal Tenenbaum (of 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums) and Murray's own Herman Blume (from 1998's Rushmore), Zissou is aging disgracefully. As for Anderson, Rushmore remains his most finely crafted curio. Anderson's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production design has, finally and utterly, crowded out sure-handed narrative and relatable characters. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, then, is admirably scruffy in its droll comic pursuits, but has all the storytelling aplomb of a Sunday-funnies section.

Zissou (pronounced "zee-soo") is Jacques Cousteau with a Glock. Increasingly derided even by the irony-loving Europeans, the documentary filmmaker is past his prime. After a dismal Q&A screening for part one of "The Jaguar Shark," Zissou's producer (Michael Gambon) scrapes together enough money for Zissou to embark on part two. In part one, Steve's longtime partner Esteban (Seymour Cassel) apparently lost his life to the jaguar shark, a species previously unknown to nature, and believed by some to be a figment of Zissou's imagination.

With mixed emotions, Steve invites the son he's just met (Owen Wilson) to accompany him on the voyage. Cate Blanchett's "Oceanographic Explorer" reporter, British-accented and pregnant, also boards Zissou's ship, the Belafonte; so too does a "bond company stooge" played to the jittery hilt by Bud Cort. With The Royal Tenenbaums and this film, Anderson has proven able to coach a deep bench of top talent: here, the supporting characters include Anjelica Huston as Steve's "rich bitch" wife, Willem Dafoe as sensitive team player Klaus, and Jeff Goldblum as his rival Hennessey (Operation Hennessey, with its healthy Aryan Youth crew, is the slicker, flush equivalent of the decrepit Team Zissou).

But Anderson is hung up on the peripheral details: an oft-topless intern here, a Proust reading session there, late-sixties-esque production design (everything is goofily branded with Team Zissou insignias and monograms), acoustic David Bowie renditions sung in Portuguese by Seu Jorge, and stop-motion animation—by Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick—of invented sea creatures, all shot in austere Panavision compositions which seem to scream, "You're watching a movie!" and whisper, "As only Wes Anderson could make it." When one pop-eyed intern protests, "We're being led on an illegal suicide mission by a selfish maniac," the remark resembles Anderson, but the director's precious father complexes distract from what might have been a self-critical comedy of overweening artistic pursuit.

As always, Anderson (who shares screenplay credit here with Noah Baumbach) attempts to pull off tragicomedy. The dramatic beats consistently fall flat, with the skittish director pulling away embarrassed just as Zissou does from an aborted kiss. Steve and son Ned bond awkwardly, fight over a woman, and face an ultimate challenge together, but they rarely feel like real people. Murray's parodic-laconic vibe ("Son of a bitch, I'm sick of these dolphins") doesn't jibe well with his occasional soulful moments, and the soulful moments no more so with the film at large.

Anderson casts the jaguar shark as the metaphor for the death that stalks us all, but the upbeat ending feels as synthetic as its special effect. It's difficult to dump on a comedy with Murray as its star and enough absurdist detail for ten movies, but the center will not hold, and the ceremony of father-son man-child innocence is drowned in Anderson's unprotected waters.

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