January 16, 2005 -- “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” is a strange piece of filmmaking, even for Wes Anderson, creator of “Rushmore.” The film is almost entirely whimsical. It bears little resemblance to reality, well, maybe Hollywood reality, but not to the real world. It is filled with fanciful people and creatures who exist only for the film. There are dolphins who take pictures of lovers through underwater portholes, and people who are immersed in everyone else's business but their own. It is all a thin metaphor about the lives of movie stars and filmmakers living on the edge.
Bill Murray stars as the title character, a kind of washed up Jacques Cousteau who makes films about the ocean that nobody wants to see anymore. He wonders if he has lost his creativity, if he has become totally irrelevant in the world. In short, he's much like any other Hollywood filmmaker past his prime, wondering if he'll ever have a hit film again. After his latest flop, Zissou is having a hard time scraping together enough money for another voyage on his beat-up research ship, the “Belafonte” (named after famed Calypso singer Harry Belafonte, related to Cousteau's famous ship “Calypso”). Only this ship isn't really a research ship. It is more of a research scam, a party ship, complete with sauna and massage parlor.
The purpose of the voyage is to track down and kill the large shark that ate Zissou's closest friend on the last voyage. Prior to this voyage, Zissou meets a young man, Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson of “Around the World in 80 Days”), who could be a long lost son of his. Impulsively, he offers Ned a position on his crew and they all sail away to find the shark. Zissou's zany crew is led by off-the-wall top hand Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe of “The Aviator”). There is also a sailor, Pelé dos Santos (Brazilian singer Seu Jorge), who spends the entire voyage sitting around playing his guitar and singing David Bowie songs in Portugese. Also along for the voyage is journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett of “The Aviator”), and Bill Ubell (Bud Cort of “Harold and Maude”) from the bond company overseeing the finances of the expedition.
The expedition travels far and wide searching for the killer shark. Along the way, they steal equipment from a competitor Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum of “Igby Goes Down”). They are attacked by pirates. Their boat breaks down and they need an infusion of cash from Zissou's ex-wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston of “Daddy Day Care”), and they mount a rescue mission for Ubell, who is kidnapped by the pirates. Since this is a whimsical movie, the plot is really beside the point. Fortunately, the characters, some of them heterosexually-challenged, are interesting enough to make the film somewhat compelling.
There are some good jokes here and there. The Zissou character is perfect for Bill Murray's deadpan humor. The burned-out, dissipated, but charming character is much the same as Murray's highly-touted character he created in “Lost in Translation.” Murray has a way of being very disarming, no matter how much of a self-centered jerk his character may be. The look of the film is exceptional, the undersea creatures, all computer animations, look very otherworldly. It is all very surreal. It is not a great film, but certainly enjoyable, particularly for Bill Murray fans. This film rates a B.
For more information on this film, including team Zissou, Zissou fan club, the Life Aquatic (filmmakers, cast, production notes, synopsis, gallery), store Zissou, Zissou archive, creature cam, click on this link to the official home page of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.