The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
If you recall the name of Jacques Cousteau's ship you'll know why Wes Anderson and his cowriter Noah Baumbach have decided to call Steve Zissou's ship the Belafonte, which is as good a way as any into this marvelously eccentric view of, well, the life aquatic. Along with the lives of fathers and sons, of husbands and wives, and whatever force it is that drives us to do or be something other than what we're currently doing or being. "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" is another in Anderson's string of cultured pearls that seem to come from an alternate universe to our own, beginning with "Bottle Rocket" and going on to "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums," each time finding a larger stage and a more secure, even serene footing for his very strange comedies.
Let's begin with the master stroke: the casting of Bill Murray as Steve Zissou. Unlike his miscasting in Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation" (think how much more appropriate to the character Jeff Bridges would have been), Murray's world-weary persona here, still lit by occasional flashes of fire, is perfect for this Cousteau-like man still running his ocean-going crew after too many filmed episodes of his adventures and too much early success. What plot there is, and fortunately there isn't much, has to do with the fact that his old partner Esteban de Plantier (Seymour Cassel, and there are a lot of wonderful proper nouns in this film, that slide by if you're not looking) was eaten by a monster shark, and Steve's swearing revenge, Ahab-like, on the shark.
Steve's somewhat estranged wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), who's bankrolled his earlier expeditions, has given up on him and is thinking about reuniting with her first husband, Steve's competitor Alastair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum). Meanwhile a young man, Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a copilot for Air Kentucky, who may or may not be Steve's unacknowledged son, has shown up to join the new expedition. As has pregnant reporter Cate Blanchett, who can't decide between writing an exposť and a puff piece about Steve. There's more, but the question of who's who is trivial compared to Anderson's larger interest in letting us see the parallel universe he's created here.
Zissou's world is made up of equal parts hubris (he has a reputation to uphold), fatalism (his barely noticeable pass at the pregnant Blanchett is turned aside by her matter-of-fact reply: "You're too old for me.") and honesty (he always speaks his mind). This part is what Murray has been waiting for ever since he left "Saturday Night Live." He has taken a totally unbelievable character, who barely touches our daily reality in the course of the film, and made Zissou into one of the great comic roles of all time. Slipping and sliding through one crisis after another, letting the undertones peek through his spoken lines so that he reveals to us much more than he says, Murray delivers a performance worthy of Buster Keaton, whose genius was also due as much to what we intuited of his character as to what we saw on screen.
For me the greatest pleasures in this film come not from witty dialogue, comic situations or unexpected confrontations, though there are plenty of each. It is what we find in the interstices - the plan of the Belafonte, which the camera sees as a cutaway set that Zissou leads us through (can this boat float?), the Brazilian crew member who plays and sings David Bowie songs in a lilting Portuguese for no particular reason, the perfect Arnold Schwarzenegger accent by crew member Willem Dafoe, the discovery of electric jellyfish on the beach one night, the mutiny by champagne-swilling student interns on the ship, the killer whales who escort the ship and are seen through enormous windows behind whatever is happening - the ways in which Anderson has enriched his palette by filling it with these thousand and one little extras that have us giggling like school children from moment to moment.
Having said all that, I now must add that the film is not the perfect gem "The Royal Tenenbaums" was. Because he's attempted much more here, we are present at a juggling act in which Anderson doesn't always keep all the balls in the air. But who needs perfection when we can have genius?