The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
Directed by Wes Anderson

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * ½

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Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), an aging oceanographer and film maker, leads his crew, which eventually includes his ex-wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), a young man, Ned (Owen Wilson), who may be his son, Jane (Cate Blanchett), a pregnant journalist, Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), a strange seamen, Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon), a smarmy film producer, Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), a rival oceanographer, and several others, on a quest to find and kill the shark who ate Steve's partner.

While Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is never hilarious, it is filled with so many clever ideas and such odd parodies that it is often funny.

The film's characters are generally well realized, although none of them are likeable enough to cause the viewer to sympathize with them. Steve himself is a selfish, far from honest, even rather unpleasant individual, but his eccentricities, his unbelieveableness as an undersea explorer, his atrocious parenting skills, and his desire to kill the possibly imaginary jaguar shark he claims devoured his partner make him enjoyable to watch. Several of the other characters are nearly as amusing as he is. Ned is ridiculously chivalrous and decent. Alistair is deliciously vain and obnoxious. Klaus is weirdly jealous of Ned, and Oseary is wonderfully unctuous. Even though these individuals are never engaging, they are entertaining.

The situations in which the members of this group find themselves are also often nicely presented, especially when these adventures are comic in tone. In various scenes, Steve and his followers burglarize Alistair's research station, are attacked by Filipino pirates, launch a raid on the hideout of those persons, venture into the depths of the ocean on a yellow submarine, and so on and so on. All of these incidents, while they may make the movie somewhat episodic, are so overwrought and frequently so strange that they are diverting. Some, moreover, are suffused with a gentle and pleasant satire on the sorts of slightly silly nature documentaries that were being made a few decades ago. Other incidents, such as Ned's attempts to form an emotional bond with Steve, the latter's reluctance to do so, and the two men's competition for Jane's affections, even though she is clearly interested in Ned and is not at all attracted to Steve, are, unfortunately, somewhat forced and do slow the film down.

Happily, the movie is often visually charming. When persons move from room to room in Steve's ship, for example, the director reveals the boat to be, like a display in a museum, a model that has been cut in half so that the viewer can see its interior. The effect is deliciously quirky and appealing. Anderson's depictions of the world beneath the ocean's waves are, however, even better. Instead of opting for realism, he has employed Henry Selick, the director of James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas, to create an amazing Neptunian fairyland alive with impossible luminous vegetation and a variety of incredible creatures. At different times, the moviegoer is shown seahorses feeding from marine flowers like hummingbirds, schools of glowing pink fish, candy cane crabs, and much more.

In spite of such virtues, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, regrettably, never really comes together. It is always a pleasure to look at and it will make the viewer smile on more than one occasion, but it is unlikely ever to carry him away so that he loses himself in his enjoyment of the film. In fact, the story is not always well paced, and some of the director's attempts to infuse his movie with drama, which are particularly prevalent in his depictions of Steve's relationship with Ned, are clumsy and distracting.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is usually enjoyable, often clever, and sometimes delightful, but it is rarely mesmerizing.

Review by Keith Allen

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