Anderson makes a delightful mess of 'The Life Aquatic'

by Lindsay Barnes | 1/4/05 6:00am

In a time when popular culture seems to be split along lines of red and blue, it seems appropriate that it's currently a gaggle of zany characters sporting red caps and blue Speedos that has moviegoers starkly divided. "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," the latest film from young auteur Wes Anderson of "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Rushmore" fame, is the rare sort of film that has critics and fans alike doing battle over its merits and flaws. What's more, the plot doesn't even involve a dying Messiah or a sitting president. One camp decries the film as a disjointed, unfocused and strange mess. The other cheers it as a dizzying, ambitious and wonderfully whimsical masterpiece.

For those who haven't had the chance to hurl critical stones from one side or the other, "The Life Aquatic" stars Bill Murray in the title role as an oceanographer and documentary filmmaker caught in the antithesis of a midlife crisis. He doesn't seem terribly worried about his life; it's just passing far too slowly for his taste. Even when he announces that his next adventure will be finding the shark that recently ate his longtime friend and collaborator on the last mission, it appears as though he's doing so simply to go through the motions of it.

It's at this point when yet another personal tempest blows Zissou's ship about, as Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), the man who might be his son, voyages all the way from landlocked Kentucky to visit him. This surprise encounter sparks some semblance of compassion in the otherwise numb Zissou and he offers Plimpton a spot on his crew.

With that, he joins the rest of Team Zissou, which includes a mercurial German first mate (Willem Dafoe), Zissou's jaded wife (Anjelica Huston), a bond company stooge (Bud Cort) and a safety expert (Seu Jorge) whose only apparent skill is playing '70s-era David Bowie covers in Portuguese. Throw in an enigmatic and pregnant journalist (Cate Blanchett), Zissou's sexually ambivalent rival (Jeff Goldblum), Filipino pirates, a three-legged dog and myriad colorful ocean creatures and you begin to get a sense of this high-energy high seas adventure.

If all of this seems like information overload, then "The Life Aquatic" may not be for you. But if you can let this dense school of strange fish wash over you rather than trying to catch each passing one, then you'll want to take the trip aboard Zissou's good ship Belafonte all over again.

Personally, I have never seen anything quite like this movie. Like Anderson's previous works, "The Life Aquatic" manages to lull the viewer into believing that it is nothing more than quirky and fun, only to reveal that there was real human drama going on underneath all the oddity the whole time. But unlike anything Anderson has done before, he manages to pull off the same magic trick of former films while balanced on the thin line between reality and fantasy.

The world Team Zissou inhabits is a lot like ours except there are a few details that are slightly off-kilter. If the good guy unloads his gun at the armed villains and hits none of them, they still stand down. A ship can appear to be a complete rust-bucket on the exterior and still have a fully functioning spa and sauna on the inside. A man can be shot at point blank range through the chest and run to safety on his own strength.

These laws of Anderson's universe are not arbitrary and don't require any suspension of disbelief. In fact, the viewer's disbelief is absolutely necessary in order for the effect to work. Just as it is amusing to watch Wile E. Coyote pause in midair and then fall to the ground, it is amusing to watch Zissou and company nonchalantly accept these little absurdities.

Furthermore, one would be hard-pressed to assemble a better ensemble cast than the one Anderson put together this time around. His repertory players Murray, Wilson and Huston are all marvelously deadpan in their performances. Anderson newcomers Dafoe, Blanchett and Goldblum are all great fun. Dafoe in particular manages to steal just about every scene he's in, which is no small task when playing alongside a comic legend like Murray.

While I highly recommend "The Life Aquatic," I do so acknowledging that the film's detractors are exactly right. It is undoubtedly a disjointed, unfocused and strange mess. But what is most impressive about "The Life Aquatic" is how all involved seem to revel in the messiness and have convinced many to jump in with them. If you decide see it, forget everything you think about what a good movie should be. Skeptically wading into Zissou's world isn't nearly as much fun as diving in head-first.

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