Underwater journey

Bill Murray and Wes Anderson conquer the sea

UNDER THE SEA Bill Murray’s Steve Zissou is the zigzagging captain of the fitful vessel of <i>The Life Aquatic</i>.

UNDER THE SEA Bill Murray’s Steve Zissou is the zigzagging captain of the fitful vessel of The Life Aquatic.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston and Cate Blanchett. Directed by Wes Anderson. Rated PG-13.
Rated 4.0

Bill Murray’s spoofy-ironic presence is so much at the heart of the new Wes Anderson film that the actor might seem to have an equal claim to authorship of the onscreen results. But this movie is also perplexing and funny in ways that suggest it is not so much a Murray vehicle as a freewheeling Anderson concoction in which Murray is an absolutely essential ingredient.

This production does have an air of giddy spoof about it—Murray plays the title character, the salty and somewhat rambunctious producer-star of an on-going series of marine-life documentaries laced with somewhat forced and hokey moments of “adventure". But the satirical spoofing is soon sharing screen time with a range of emerging storylines—Zissou’s pursuit of the “jaguar shark” that killed a veteran crewmember in the previous filmed adventure; the arrival of one Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a fledgling crew member who might be Zissou’s illegitimate son; both men’s half-baked relationships with a conflicted (and pregnant) reporter (Cate Blanchett) who has come on board for the company’s latest sea-going adventure; and Zissou’s volatile, erratic relationship with the science adviser who is also his latest wife (Anjelica Huston).

The film’s zigzag preoccupations—showbiz fumbling, fractured marriages and families, the vicissitudes of a wobbly filmmaking enterprise, flawed fathers and role models, skin-of-the-teeth professionalism, muddled identities—flirt with incoherence but somehow succeed as a festive kind of multiplicity. And that festiveness is only heightened by passing encounters with a “bank stooge” (Bud Cort), some Filipino pirates, a three-legged dog, and the daunting Mr. Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), who is Zissou’s rival in show business, marine science and romance.

None of the key actors are at their best, but the ensemble effect is fitfully exhilarating just the same. There’s a deadpan style of understated comic acting throughout—especially with the red-capped rascals in Zissou’s crew—and a small, late scene between Wilson and Willem Dafoe seems to underline both the pathos and the absurdity of the silences and unspoken understandings among the film’s various characters.

The Life Aquatic has a surprisingly consistent appeal despite (or is it because of?) an abiding air of whimsy and inconsequentiality. And Murray’s beguiling combination of reckless goof-off and ramshackle tyrant has much to do with the film’s success in sustaining interest.

Anderson’s movie succeeds finally as an astonishingly rich shaggy-dog story in which depth charges of dramatic humor and delayed-reaction comedy have everything to do with how a seemingly simple story becomes funnier, sadder and more moving than we would seem to have had any reason to expect.