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Quirky film anchored by Murray’s performance

Brian Doxtader | Monday, January 24, 2005

Alfred Hitchcock called them “macguffins” – objects being pursued in a film whose function was to set in motion the machinations of the plot. The actual macguffin itself was less important than its ability to motivate the characters and drive the story. The title character of “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” spends most of the film half-heartedly hunting the Leopard Shark which ate his friend and mentor. When he finally finds it, the moment is simultaneously transcendent and deflating, a scene which seems to work, but for all the wrong reasons. Such is the stuff of director Wes Anderson’s new film, which reverts back toward insular filmmaking after the critical success of “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Even more idiosyncratic than his previous work, “The Life Aquatic” is doggedly eccentric almost to the point of nonsense. Yet Anderson still has enough charm in his oddities to make a film that is still consistently entertaining and sporadically excellent, especially since he has a perfect secret weapon in star Bill Murray. Murray’s charisma and screen presence overcomes the director’s smirking filmic attitude and proves once again both the aging actor’s comedic and dramatic mettle.The plot involves aging Cousteau-esque aquatic explorer and filmmaker Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) whose nature documentaries are starting to have diminishing returns. On his last voyage out, his best friend is eaten by a new species of shark and Zissou vows revenge. He sets out on his boat, “The Belafonte,” with his rag-tag crew of scientists, filmmakers and anonymous unpaid interns. Matters are complicated by the appearance of Ned (Owen Wilson), who may or may not be Zissou’s son, and Jane (Cate Blanchett), a pregnant reporter trying to write a cover story on the washed-out seafarer.The biggest problem with “The Life Aquatic” is plot, or lack thereof. The film never has an assured drive and instead touches on everything under the sun. It crosses genres uncomfortably and with mixed results. Depending on when you walk in, the film is a revenge story, a sea-faring adventure, a complicated meditation on paternity, a romantic comedy or an action film. Instead of being sweeping and grand, the scope of the film serves to make it seem cluttered and unfocused.The film’s performances are equally quirky, but uniformly excellent. Murray is one of the few actors who could pull off a role like Steve Zissou, proverbially winking at the audience with a completely straight face. He even manages to evoke sympathy in what should be a mostly unsympathetic role. Wilson, who co-wrote the film, is likeable and convincing in a fully-realized character. Blanchett proves herself to be one of the most versatile contemporary actresses. One of the funniest turns comes from Willem Dafoe, who demonstrates a welcome comedic knack as a reserved German scientist. Thankfully, neither the actors nor the director “dumb down” any of the characters for comic effect. All of the characters are intelligent and most have a surprising degree of self-awareness, which helps keep the film from completely sinking under its own pretensions.”The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” is one of Anderson’s more esoteric outings. It’s impossible not to get the sense he is making exactly the film he wants to make, but it comes at the cost of plot and momentum. The worst part about the film is how startlingly close it comes to being a great film. There are genuine and wonderful moments throughout. With “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Anderson seemed to be heading for a mainstream audience, but “The Life Aquatic” is definitely a retreat. Though much of the blame for the film’s shortcomings can be pinned on him, Anderson still remains a master of his own idiosyncrasies.