Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Cate Blanchett, Bud Cort, Anjelica Huston, Michael Gambon, and Owen Wilson in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)


(director/writer: Wes Anderson; screenwriter: Noah Baumbach; cinematographer: Robert D. Yeoman; editor: David Moritz; music: Mark Mothersbaugh; cast: Bill Murray (Steve Zissou), Owen Wilson (Ned Plimpton), Cate Blanchett (Jane Winslett-Richardson), Anjelica Huston (Eleanor Zissou), Willem Dafoe (Klaus Daimler), Jeff Goldblum (Hennessey), Michael Gambon (Drakoulious), Bud Cort (Bill Ubell), Seymour Cassel (Esteban de Plantier); Runtime: 118; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Wes Anderson/Barry Mendel/Scott Rudin; Touchstone Pictures; 2004)
“Has a quiet comical edginess that reflects the poignancy of the situation and the characters.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums”) comes up with another oddball comedy in this parody of world famous oceanic filmmaker Jacques Cousteau and also takes a swipe at spoofing Moby Dick. The charm might be perceived in its mock serious approach to its subject matter, which belies the absurdity of the situation. The sad nature of the story and the low-key way it’s presented means that there’s no great belly laughs, as the humor is hard won and has a quiet comical edginess that reflects the poignancy of the situation and the characters.

It’s about a has-been undersea documentary filmmaker named Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) who’s in denial, always sporting a sad-sack look, a red Calypso cap and famous for making cheesy documentaries about marine life. He’s going through a midlife crisis over personal and professional matters (his marriage to a former heiress, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), is shaky and his work is no longer respected or covered with seriousness). It’s sharply written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, and covers the director’s usual concerns over strained family relationships, aging, and the difficulties of romance and worldly relationships.

At an Italian Film Festival, Zissou shows his latest documentary to a less than enthusiastic audience. He shows footage of his best friend and lead diver Esteban de Plantier (Seymour Cassel) eaten by a mythical Jaguar Shark, listed as an endangered species, and this gives him a chance to get publicity for a Part 2 that will show him going after the killer shark and destroying it. This is his chance to make his first hit documentary after 9 years of failure. When facing a board of marine biologists and told they will only fund him if he doesn’t kill the shark, he agrees to only capture the shark. But when out of there hearing range, he tells his crew member: “Load the dynamite.”

Before going out on this expedition, Zissou unexpectedly meets a co-pilot for a small Kentucky airline named Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), who tells him his mother just took her life after battling with ovarian cancer and that she mentioned that he might be his father. Ned is invited to join the Zissou team and accepts the job even though marine biology is not his field, as the amiable hero-worshiping possible illegitimate son instead hopes to grow closer to his father.

Cate Blanchette is Jane Winslett-Richardson, the British crusading reporter for a scientific magazine who will be embedded in the mission to write a “cover story.” Her funniest moment is when she’s reading Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” to her unborn child of 5-months and Ned asks if he can be present. She then asks “Would you like me to summarize the plot?” That’s the kind of underhanded humor that works best. It sets her up as someone experiencing real life pains of a soon-to-be single mom, the father is a married man, who has to fend for herself in a male dominated world and yet her painful situation is ripe to be mocked in a bittersweet way.

Other zany characters include Jeff Goldblum as Alistair Hennessey, Zissou’s wealthy slick arch-rival, who has his crew adorned in identical white uniforms while they sail in his state-of-the-art yacht. Zissou’s brown cigarette smoking disinterested business partner wife Eleanor is contemplating going back to the smug billionaire–he’s her partly gay first hubby. And Klaus (Willem Dafoe), an overly protective loyal German-born first mate, who looks askance at the potential son’s claims and motives.

If the film didn’t almost capsize when it goes from a paper-thin plot to one that’s too plot heavy and has pirates show up — it might have reached port safely with all its subtle humor intact and have been a better film. But, as is, there were still plenty of funny moments and Bill Murray gives his usual fine performance.