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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Fantastically odd voyage to planet Anderson

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Wes Anderson
Running time: 118 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Once in a while you come across a film so oddball you can't really define why. Bizarre, one can deal with. But twistedly, puzzlingly, sublimely, oddball . . . it's tough. So much so that it becomes a nerve-wrenching struggle just to keep track of what the hell is happening. But then this is a comedy by none other than Wes Anderson ("The Royal Tenenbaums," "Rushmore") so perhaps it's only to be expected that the laughs are going to be in the tittering/giggling category, instead of the healthy/side-splitting one.

News photo
The cast of "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"

Appropriately, watching "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" is a bit like being underwater and regarding the various forms of marine life in all their extraordinariness (multicolored stripes, odd shapes, multipurpose appendages, etc.) After a while it becomes pointless to ask why or how; it's enough just to stare gape-mouthed in awe. Slooooowly, a fantastic creature that seems like a cross between a giant spider and an antelope swerves and glides toward you.

Besides these oddities, "The Life Aquatic" has this strange languorous tempo. Wim Wenders said the filmmakers of today are forced to speed up their stories since all of the modern world is in a rush; if so, Anderson is from another world than ours. Events unfold at a dirge-like pace and then collapse midway, picking up again in a halfhearted manner, maybe -- er -- 18 minutes later. Then they just kind of give up and disappear, whereupon the procedure is repeated with another event. Meanwhile, a Brazilian seaman in a red cap strums his guitar and sings David Bowie songs in Portuguese. He's very good; it's just that he does this a whole lot.

At the center of this whole intriguing (or not) set-up is Bill Murray playing Steve Zissou, a once-famous oceanographer now on the brink of hanging up his flippers. He hasn't had a hit documentary in five years and his best friend/right-hand-man Esteban (Seymour Cassell) has just been eaten by a mysterious spotted shark ("I've named it the 'jaguar shark,' " says Steve solemnly). Swearing revenge, Steve reassembles Team Zissou, which consists of his trusted crew; his cool, flamboyant, "rich-bitch" wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston); a newcomer named Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) who may or may not be his son from an affair 30 years ago; and a pregnant reporter by the name of Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) who's covering the expedition.

Steve has a vacant stare that descends on his face at random moments, as well as a crisp, authoritative manner that has seen better days. He alternates between the two modes while kicking back Camparis on the rocks (his favorite drink), rolling himself a joint or relaxing in the sauna. Steve has Epicurean tastes, and apparently so did Jacques Cousteau, to whom this movie is dedicated. (In fact, it looks like Steve inherited Jacques' oceanography equipment from the 1960s.)

Deep inside, Steve probably cares about his team, his son, his ship (The Belafonte), the expedition and his reputation. But like everything else about this movie, it takes a hell of a long time for his emotions to surface, as if they were submerged 20,000 leagues under the sea.

On the other hand, Steve is a prickly sort and quick to bite back. When Jane expresses misapprehensions about him and his project, Steve snarls: "How would you feel if I called you a phony and a bad reporter, huh?" Don't get him wrong, Steve's a nice and sensitive guy; it's just that he's more nice and sensitive to himself than to other people.

Still, he has enough leftover charisma to keep Ned hovering around him and competing with veteran staff member Klaus (Willem Dafoe) for his attention. Dafoe steals a lot of scenes with this subtly campy role in which he runs around the ship in white socks and shorts and pouts when Steve fails to show just the right amount of trust and affection. A hurt first mate, or maybe spurned lover? The gay undertones of "Life Aquatic" are sometimes muted but always hilarious -- consider, for example, Steve's agent Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon) who calls him "my darling" and flirts openly with Ned. Or Eleanor's ex-husband and Steve's oceanographer rival Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) who tosses off remarks like: "Neither one of us made very good husbands for her, did we? But I have an excuse, I'm part gay." To which Steve replies in typical deadpan manner: "All men are."

Hennessey's ship, by the way, is staffed with a legion of brisk and prettily groomed boys in sailor's caps, as opposed to Steve's crew who are slow and grungey and made to wear the trademark Zissou red wool cap along with Zissou uniforms which resemble pajamas for a gay slumber party (don't ask me how I know). And let it be known that the entire male cast wears blue-black eyeliner but only the trained eye will be able to pick this up. You could get quite so lost here, just cataloging the samples of strangeness, that you could forget to laugh at the jokes. But really, are we supposed to laugh? It's easy to imagine a misplaced loud giggle incurring the wrath of the onscreen Captain Steve, and eliciting that level, blank stare he does so well.

It's no wonder that in his presence, the women don't exactly bloom, though Anjelica Huston gives a brilliant performance of an I've-seen-it-all femme who's mildly bored, mildly amused and mildly but deeply pissed off. Blanchett as Jane looks almost asexual (despite her pregnancy) in a series of outdoorsy outfits that involve a lot of beige and brown shirts with flap pockets, her hair is done up in a schoolmarmish braid. Supposedly, Steve develops a giant crush but I never believed it -- there's no hiding the fire in his eyes when he's alone with Ned, both of them wearing those red caps. Like the movie however, their relationship never swims. It just floats.

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