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Photograph by Philippe Antonelio

Working For Scales: Bill Murray and Owen Wilson prepare for some underwater whimsy in 'The Life Aquatic.'

The Sea Outside

'The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou' pilots 'Rumblefish' into uncharted waters

By Richard von Busack

STEVE ZISSOU (Bill Murray) is like Buckaroo Banzai, Jacques Cousteau and Ernest Hemingway combined. He is an ocean-going explorer and a hard-drinking pugnacious filmmaker. In Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Zissou begins to realize something new about himself. He is a has-been. His newest undersea-world documentary didn't go over. No surprise there—the man, his filmmaking techniques and his equipment are stranded in 1977. Zissou's regular moneyman (Michael Gambon) can't promise any financing for the sequel, and Zissou burns with a cold fury at a rare jaguar shark that ate his best friend, Esteban, during his last voyage. He proposes that the subject of his new film will be the hunt for the shark. At this critical point in his life, Zissou encounters Ned (Owen Wilson), the illegitimate son he has never met.

The director of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums has attracted the finest actors, including Willem Dafoe as the first mate, Anjelica Huston as Zissou's contempt-ridden wife and Cate Blanchett as a seemingly crusty reporter. Anderson's co-writer is indie filmmaker Noah Baumbach. The soundtrack includes samba versions of the David Bowie songbook adapted for acoustic guitar, performed in Brazilian Portuguese by Seu Jorge. Animator Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) created the hallucinatory stop-motion-animation fish. Composer Mark Mothersbaugh and Selick are responsible for the most beguiling sequence: A bathysphere glides through a turquoise-blue plaster lagoon; melancholy technochimes cheep away, while Zissou and crew drift past hummingbird fish sipping nectar from sea anemones. Like so many of us, Anderson grieves for the submarine ride at Disneyland.

At 34, Anderson is a hardened nostalgic. This prematurely disillusioned filmmaker loves Murray's weariness and loneliness. He has found an iconic sense of disappointment in Murray, in that moroseness that says, "What we have here is a failure to connect." But remaking Moby-Dick, even as a cartoon, is ambitious. Ahab said that the white whale was but a mask he needed to strike through, to get what was hiding behind it. Selick's prettily animated shark isn't grand enough to pull Anderson's metaphysical freight. And the search for the father in Anderson's two last films seems to reflect the search for a center to his smart, brittle movies. This is particularly sad, since the music he sources so heavily is loaded with emotional associations that his films can't quite tap into. For example, the Jackson Browne/Nico song "These Days" knows what it's about as a song, more than The Royal Tenenbaums knows what it's about as a film.

Despite Anderson's admiration for tough-talking oldsters, you never get the sense that he directs his actors with similar toughness. Anderson is smart, but he's oblivious to comedic rhythms. The cast delivers the droll, dry lines, but the wit evaporates between the page and the actors' lips. Anderson still has potential, but so far, he has just been smart enough to outsmart himself. And now his movies are starting to go bitter. It is sad how very close The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou comes to being a hit. At the least, it demonstrates what's really needed isn't children's fables for adults, but adult movies that children can also enjoy.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (R; 118 min.), directed by Wes Anderson, written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, photographed by Robert D. Yeoman and starring Bill Murray, opens Dec. 25 at selected theaters.

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From the December 22-28, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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