The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (15)

Whale of a time
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The Independent Culture

There is a moment early on in the new Wes Anderson picture when Bill Murray, playing the oceanographer and film-maker Steve Zissou, is asked how he's feeling. He replies, warily, "I'm right on the edge. I don't know what comes next." That pretty much encapsulated my own response to this movie: for most of the time I felt my hold on the proceedings was as uncertain as a passenger grabbing for the handrail on a lurching deck. Is it a brilliantly eccentric tragicomedy of lost-and-found father- hood or just the worst case of over-calculated, under-felt whimsy since The Royal Tenenbaums, also directed by Anderson? One comes to the disconcerting realisation that it is probably both.

There is a moment early on in the new Wes Anderson picture when Bill Murray, playing the oceanographer and film-maker Steve Zissou, is asked how he's feeling. He replies, warily, "I'm right on the edge. I don't know what comes next." That pretty much encapsulated my own response to this movie: for most of the time I felt my hold on the proceedings was as uncertain as a passenger grabbing for the handrail on a lurching deck. Is it a brilliantly eccentric tragicomedy of lost-and-found father- hood or just the worst case of over-calculated, under-felt whimsy since The Royal Tenenbaums, also directed by Anderson? One comes to the disconcerting realisation that it is probably both.

Steve Zissou is a man at sea. After making his name as a kind of American Jacques Cousteau, he hasn't had a hit documentary in nine years and is now financially adrift; worse, he's grieving the loss of his close friend to a "jaguar shark" on their last expedition. Steve is determined to seek revenge back in the deep, but still has problems to sort out on terra firma, first of all an estrangement from his wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), who is rumoured to be "the brains behind Team Zissou", and second, the unexpected emergence of Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a young pilot with an Errol Flynn moustache and a claim to be Steve's illegitimate son.

He soon co-opts Ned on to the crew of his boat, the Belafonte, and so begins a strange, bemusing rapprochement between father and putative son. "Why didn't you contact me?" asks Ned. "Because I hate fathers and I never wanted to be one," replies Steve, who nevertheless feels stirrings of paternal warmth and eventually offers Ned the double gift of his family and favourite boy's names: Kingsley Ned Zissou.

The role is a test for Murray, whose sad-clown face is infinitely watchable but whose brand of imperturbable deadpan works best within the parameters of provocation: there's no point in under-reacting if there's nothing there to rouse you in the first place. Anderson has surrounded his star with talented performers, but I'm not sure any of them is his ideal sparring partner. Huston has an even more arctic cool than Murray, and doesn't linger on screen. Willem Dafoe is stiffly loyal as Klaus the German deckhand, and has one delightful moment of misunderstanding, while Wilson plays against his usual slacker type as the sweetly earnest Ned. Jeff Goldblum does a sly cameo as Steve's unctuous rival, though he too hasn't quite the comic poke to bring Murray's imperial boredom into focus. (Does Murray's world-weariness thrive against a younger foil? The memory of Jason Schwartzmann in Rushmore and Scarlett Johansson in Lost In Translation suggests so.)

As evidenced in The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson has less trust in the comedy of character than the pleasures of visual and verbal incongruity. He writes scenes as if he were trying to reproduce the sophisticated drollery of a New Yorker cartoon. When Steve apologises to his wife by saying, "I know I haven't been at my best this past decade", one can almost hear the civilised accent of Upper East Side ennui. Again, when he introduces Ned to an associate at a party, he says, "Oh, this is probably my son Ned", somehow packing too much information - and not nearly enough - into a single sentence. Cate Blanchett as a jolly-hockey-sticks English reporter is awarded the verbal tic of not being able to swear: she only "effs".

The same mannerism infects the look. Anderson loves posed symmetries and tableaux; images that look like promotional material, such as the film's poster-shot of the whole cast ranged around Murray in the window of a submersible, actually occur in the movie. Instead of the camera snaking through the boat's corridors and cabins, we are invited to gaze upon the vessel in a cartoonish cross-section. Henry Selick's exotic CGI creatures of the deep, including a 70ft spotted shark, simply enhance the hallucinatory atmosphere. (Steve is a committed dope-head, which might explain something.)

Conversations burble on in a cabin while a whale noses past a porthole in the background. Anderson, in his mid-thirties, retains an incorrigibly boyish streak, not only in his penchant for daft headgear - the knitted scarlet caps worn by Team Zissou chime with Jason Schwartzmann's beret in Rushmore and Luke Wilson's headband in Tenenbaums - but also in absurd bouts of piratical violence.

How much of this will work for you depends on your appetite for the picturesquely dysfunctional. Certainly, Anderson has hit upon a style - aloof, watchful, nutty as a fruitcake - that is quite different from any other film-maker, which of itself merits our admiration. That he has also managed to secure studio backing for this latest outlandish venture (think Moby Dick re-imagined as a comedy of unhappy families, with Murray as an impassive Ahab) deserves a 21-popgun salute. All I could wish is that I enjoyed it more. So much of it seems to breathe the air of a private amusement that you wonder if Anderson conceived it for an audience at all; his films, like Peter Greenaway's, are playful and intricate but almost absent of feeling and drama. There are many times in The Life Aquatic when you find yourself nodding at a line and thinking "how clever" or "how droll", but hardly ever "how touching".

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