'The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou': THR's 2004 Review

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou Still 2004 - Photofest - H 2018
In this loopy, melancholy riff on 'Moby-Dick,' Wes Anderson has crafted his most thrillingly original, if not always emotionally convincing, film.

On Dec. 10, 2004, Wes Anderson unveiled his latest ensemble comedy, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, in theaters in New York and Los Angeles. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below.

Although still fond of oddballs and eccentrics, Wes Anderson moves past the merely quirky in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, his wonderfully weird and wistful adventure-comedy about a fish-out-of-water oceanographer. Following his Oscar-nominated turn in Lost in Translation, Bill Murray brings his singularly edgy ennui to the unlikely role of a modern-day Ahab.

The writer-director's most recent film, The Royal Tenenbaums, was a museum collection of character types that never coalesced into an affecting story. Here, sharing scripting duties with Noah Baumbach, Anderson still struggles to fuse character observation with feeling, and most of the proceedings unfold at an emotional distance. But, in the helmer's most expansive project yet, the cast's commitment and the inventive milieu, rendered with enormous care, keep the story well afloat. Given Murray's heightened box office profile and Anderson's loyal following, Aquatic, which goes wide Christmas Day after its New York/L.A. bow Friday, should reel in high midrange receipts.

Steve Zissou (Murray) is a 52-year-old American version of Jacques Cousteau but without the joie de vivre. He moves with a weary stiffness, and when a child presents him with a brightly striped seahorse — the first of the film's many fantastic creatures — he glances impassively at it. Later, he flicks a Day-Glo yellow lizard off his wrist with cavalier spite.

Steve's empire of all things Zissou has been in decline for a decade, and he's having trouble securing financing for Part 2 of his latest documentary. The object is revenge: He intends to hunt down the mysterious jaguar shark that devoured his lead diver and best friend (Seymour Cassel) before his eyes in Part 1.

As in Tenenbaums, Anderson's focus is a reluctant father figure, and a familial story soon supplants the obsessive Moby-Dick angle. Just before the Belafonte, Zissou's converted World War II submarine hunter, heads out to sea, a young man named Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), genteel to the point of quaintness, introduces himself as Steve's possible son from a long-ago liaison. Responding to the admiration in Ned's eyes — and sensing a "relationship subplot" for the documentary — Steve invites him to join Team Zissou's expedition. Ned proves smarter than his mellow exterior would suggest, and soon he's bailing out the strapped production and provoking the jealousy of devoted engineer Klaus (Willem Dafoe, delivering a comic and touching performance).

Also on board is an at-loose-ends pregnant British journalist (a disappointingly wan Cate Blanchett) and the bond company rep, a milquetoast who turns out to be a mensch (Bud Cort, terrific). Staying behind is Steve's wife, Eleanor (a regal Anjelica Huston), who objects to the mission. Although their marriage is running on fumes, it's a blow to Steve; she's the brains of the operation. Twisting the knife, she opts for R&R at the tropical estate of her ex, Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum, an effective nemesis), a glamour-boy oceanographer whose state-of-the-art sea lab casts Zissou in the dated shadows.

Highlighting the story's melancholy are musical interludes by actor-musician Seu Jorge (City of God), playing a guitar-strumming member of the crew who sings David Bowie songs in Portuguese. "Ziggy Stardust" in the language of fado is a strange and beautiful thing, encapsulating the dislocation, sadness and wonder that define the film's watery world.

Anderson's deep affection for his "pack of strays" is clear, and the final moments of the film are truly moving. But much of the time the characters' specific emotions play out at a remove, filtered through ironic humor and high-seas danger. Murray convincingly conveys an existential ache, but Steve's paternal pangs lack the intended impact, and — Wilson's fine performance notwithstanding — Ned is more device than character.

Eschewing digital effects for hand-crafted whimsy, the film uses stop-motion animation by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) for such delightful creations as candy-colored sugar crabs and rhinestone bluefins. Robert Yeoman's fluid camerawork captures the expressive production design of Mark Friedberg, especially the Belafonte's faded glory. The handsome, Italy-shot production also benefits from Milena Canonero's slightly cartoony, character-defining costumes and Mark Mothersbaugh's jaunty score. — Sheri Linden, originally published Dec. 6, 2004.