The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou

Wes Anderson is a very gifted filmmaker, but he might be completely lost if it weren’t for Bill Murray.

The title character of “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” is an oafish, selfish, narcissist who is impossible to like, and yet Murray, as he’s done before in films like “Groundhog Day” and others, makes the character palatable, funny and even just a little relatable.

It’s the story of a nature documentarian trying to fund and make the second part to his most recent film, in which a mysterious creature he calls a jaguar shark eats his longtime friend and companion. Now he intends to document the hunt for the shark out of revenge. At the premiere of his film, he meets Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a man who claims to be Zissou’s illegitimate son. He and a pregnant journalist (Cate Blanchett) accompany Zissou on his most recent nautical quest.

Anderson’s films have been criticized as cold and without emotional entry points, and “The Life Aquatic” may be the start of that. It’s a film obsessed with its colorful kitsch, the regal mixed with the cartoonish. It has acoustic covers of David Bowie songs performed in Portuguese as its soundtrack, it has stop motion animation done by Henry Selick (“The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Coraline”) to provide unexpected visual gags and it has dry, uptight characters not making jokes but acting as self-parodies.

When Anderson pans across an intricate set with the fourth wall removed in “The Royal Tenenbaums” or in “Moonrise Kingdom,” he does so to provide context of the depth of family or the spirit of fantasy and discovery. Here, Zissou’s boat looks especially like a movie set, and it’s used as a one-off joke. Like Zissou’s own corny, dated documentaries, he uses it to make a statement about how this nostalgia has lost its kitschy charm and appeal over time and become just a joke.

That’s because for how colorful “The Life Aquatic” is, all of it feels so flat. None of the colors are bright, only soft yellows and blues, and none of the frames have depth, just strikingly picturesque framing in two dimensions.

And yet Anderson’s control over framing and tone is consistently and surprisingly brilliant. He can invigorate the film with a completely nuts scene of Bill Murray going badass on a group of pirates that have invaded his boat. He can make time stop in a nearly Kubrick-esque sequence of a helicopter crash.

All of these moments too scream Anderson. It goes without saying that every Wes Anderson film is so Wes Anderson-y, and no director does it quite the same.

3 stars

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