NOW PLAYING: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Posted: Monday, January 03, 2005



Bill Murray has achieved a career transformation of epic proportion. Somehow, without anyone seeing it, he went from the wacky freefall comedy of Caddyshack and Meatballs to the dramatic and heartbreaking comedy of Rushmore and Lost in Translation. But is it so surprising? Consistently described as a consummate professional, Murray has been raising the bar on just about every movie he's starred in since his Saturday Night Live days. Groundhog Day received glowing reviews, as did potential puff pieces like What About Bob? and Ghostbusters. And perhaps a man who is notoriously difficult to nail down or even get on the phone, is simply choosy about the projects he participates in. Bill Murray has been looked at as the sort of zany comedian who steals the scene with one-liners and goofy expressions for so long, that when it becomes clear that he is, in fact, an actor, it comes as a shock. But now it's all come around and Murray has become the new underdog to root for at awards time. Nominated by several organizations in various acting categories for Rushmore and Lost in Translation, he has yet to win an Oscar, but we can always hope. The potential performance this year is in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, working for the third time with auteur Wes Anderson. Can Oscar voters reconcile the wacky groundskeeper Murray with the lonely oceanographer Murray? They're going to have to, because the new Bill Murray is here to stay.

Steve Zissou is a world-famous oceanographer/documentary filmmaker. Think Jacques Cousteau, but without all the actual talent. What Team Zissou lacks in qualifications, however, they make up in enthusiasm and determination. They are a strange and beautiful group of misfits, rather more like a hippie commune than a scientific outfit, and yet, somehow, they have managed to make important discoveries throughout the aquatic world. But, when the mind and soul of the team, Esteban, is eaten by a mysterious new species of shark, Steve's heart is broken and he declares revenge. What follows is an uneven, hilarious, and at times achingly sad, comic odyssey. It's cast of characters is as myriad as the fish in the sea, from a tough as nails pregnant reporter played brilliantly by Cate Blanchett to crew member Pel dos Santos, who serves as the ships personal soundtrack by sitting by with his guitar singing David Bowie tunes in Portuguese. Also joining in the fun are Michael Gambon, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum, Owen Wilson, and a wonderfully different character from Willem Dafoe. The film and it's crew wander all over the map, stealing equipment, fighting modern day pirates, and discovering fascinating creatures along the way. This, if you are of a mind to just let the flow take you along, leaving preconceived notions behind, is a fascinating way to spend two hours. On the other hand, if you need positive structure, logic, and resolution, The Life Aquatic may be a particularly frustrating diversion.

Wes Anderson hasn't exactly hit it big in the same way such indie directors as Steven Soderburgh have, but what he lacks in box office receipts, he makes up for in pure, unadulterated cult love. Beginning with his first film, Bottlerocket, Anderson has maintained a consistent following, feeding his fans with eccentric characters stuck in the banality of real life. After Bottlerocket came Rushmore, considered by many to be the pinnacle of his career. From Rushmore came The Royal Tenenbaums, a highly underestimated movie in my opinion, and now Aquatic. When trying to visualize what sort of a movie this is, you have to think back to Tenenbaums. The Life Aquatic has much of the same cast and a similar vibe, though it contains more action and bigger laughs.

I very much enjoyed this film, and though I realize we don't get to see many of the big Hollywood award contenders down here on the Peninsula, I think it's important to support truly story and actor driven films like this one. The characters, good and bad, are much like distorted mirror images of ourselves. A little dented, perhaps, but still us. This is Wes Anderson's genius. By surrounding his story with bizarre and eccentric people caught up in rather mundane, tasteless predicaments, Anderson shows us who we really are. Sometimes its pretty, sometimes its not, but it's always entertaining. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou may not appeal to all, but the more I watch, the more I find myself sinking deeper and deeper into it's rich tapestry. Grade: A-

The Life Aquatic has been rated R for language, adult themes, and nudity.

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