U.S. Release Date: December 10, 2004
Distributor: Buena Vista
Director: Wes Anderson
Writer: Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach
Producer: Wes Anderson, Barry Mendel, Scott Rudin
Composer: Mark Mothersbaugh
Cast: Bud Cort, Seu Jorge, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon
Running Time: 1 hour and 58 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (for language, some drug use, violence and partial nudity)

A Comic Fish Tale
by C.A. Wolski

Though not as sharp or observant as his earlier outings into his surreal, comic universe, writer and director Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is pleasantly weird, if slightly disappointing.

Bill Murray is the eponymous Steve Zissou and Owen Wilson is Ned, who may or may not be Zissou's long-abandoned son. Along for the ride is Cate Blanchett as a very pregnant journalist, Willem Dafoe as a maniacal German dive master, and Bud Cort as a hapless bank accountant. The group is assembled to search for and kill the legendary jaguar shark, which was responsible for the death of Zissou's best friend at the beginning of the movie.

The crew's journey into the heart of dark comedy aboard the richly apportioned ex-subhunter Belafonte—accommodations include a full spa, gourmet kitchen, an antiquated laboratory, and film post-production studio—is one of the highlights of Life Aquatic, which literally runs out of steam halfway through when the intrepid group is attacked by pirates. But the early stuff is terrific.

Murray is his typical, understated self, taking Zissou—who requires the crew to alternately wear red knit caps and Speedos—seriously, with not one wink at the camera. Not even close to his bravura performance in Lost in Translation, Murray's follow-up is solid and his talent continues to mature.

The story doesn't quite match his talent. The pirate subplot, which has the Belafonte crew engaged in rescuing a kidnapped crewmember, doesn't fit because it's handled as serious business. And the pursuit of Blanchett by the male leads doesn't work.

What does work is the initial pursuit of the jaguar shark and the lengths Zissou goes to capture it, including raiding the lab facilities of a rival (a fey Jeff Goldblum) and the satire of those calculated nature documentaries.

What also works is Anderson's theme about the meaning of family. Here he offers the flipside of The Royal Tenenbaums, offering a cheerful and wonderful family of characters from every corner of the globe. Whether Ned is Zissou's son is irrelevant; he is accepted as such and that's all that matters.

Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach undercut this toward the end with another unwelcome interjection of sudden seriousness in the otherwise lighthearted, sunny affair. One suspects the script might have gained from the input of Wilson, who has penned other Anderson works. The rough edges—which leave loose ends, such as what happens with Zissou's first wife—are at least a change from the cliché-ridden junk that passes for comedy.

And rough spots don't derail The Life Aquatic. With its off-kilter sensibility and fantastic production design, from the wonderful Belafonte (a character in its own right) to the almost anachronistic blue uniforms and the multi-colored seahorse, it is a wonderful, if messy, fish tale with lively, caring and committed characters, making Wes Anderson's Life Aquatic almost as rare as a jaguar shark.

A Mighty Wind
Satire Lite
Lost in Translation
Sleepless in Tokyo