Combustible Celluloid
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With: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, Bud Cort
Written by: Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach
Directed by: Wes Anderson
MPAA Rating: R for language, some drug use, violence and partial nudity
Running Time: 118
Date: 11/20/2004

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Murray Making

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It has taken a while to piece together the bits of Bill Murray's resumeand come to the realization that he is, indeed, one of the great comicactors of all time.

Wes Anderson helped remind us by directing Murray in a sadly humorous supporting role in Rushmore (1998). Then Sofia Coppola cemented his reputation with a monumental lead role in last year's Lost in Translation.

Now Murray is back in Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. It's a magnificent vessel, shot with eye-popping doodads and bold colors, arranged with blocky precision. From the first frame, it's obvious who made it.

Yet somehow, though it looks like a Wes Anderson film, it doesn't feel like one. With The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson delivered a modestly-budgeted, complicated ensemble piece that managed to be funny, beautiful and sad. The Life Aquatic is far more expensive, but this time the money takes center stage. The film's magic comes from its sets and colors, and it's baffling to watch helplessly while Murray's character drifts further and further away.

Murray plays Zissou, an over-the-hill oceanographer and filmmaker who has just returned from a fatal voyage that cost the life of his first mate, Esteban (Seymour Cassel). He plans to make a follow-up voyage to find the killer, a new breed of spotted shark. (Animator Henry Selick provided the film's beautiful and fictitious fish.)

Among his crew, is a new recruit, Ned (Owen Wilson), who may or may not be Zissou's long-lost son, as well as the loyal Klaus (Willem Dafoe), a pregnant reporter (Cate Blanchett) and a bond company stooge (Bud Cort). Zissou's fed-up wife (Anjelica Huston) decides to sit this one out, while Zissou's rival, the highly-funded Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) turns up to cause trouble.

While each character is clearly drawn and given lots of strange and wonderful things to say, the spaces between them remain clogged. And in this, Murray suffers the most. Like Brando, he's capable of phoning in a performance if not properly challenged. He slips into detached mode, preferring his own headspace and wisecracks to a real emotional connection.

Normally, Anderson co-writes his screenplays with the goofy, laid-back Owen Wilson, who nicely counterbalances Anderson's assured control. This time, the screenplay is co-credited to Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming), and Wilson's easygoing charm is definitely missing.

Indeed, the entire emotional wavelength of the film is out to sea, as if waiting for a sail-filling wind that never came.

DVD Details: Wes Anderson's fourth movie screened rather late in 2004's awards season, and I was forced to make a snap judgment on it. Months later, I'm still not sure if it's a misunderstood masterpiece, or a definite misstep in the director's career. Here's a new Criterion Collection DVD to help clarify things, though. Like their 2002 The Royal Tenenbaums, it's a two-disc set with lots of good stuff: a commentary track by Anderson and his co-writer Noah Baumbach (recorded live at the same New York cafe in which they wrote the film), deleted scenes, a trailer, a fairly routine behind-the-scenes featurette (from Starz!), a terrific new mini-documentary by the great Albert Maysles, a good 15-minute video shot by one of the film's "interns," tons of other featurettes, music videos of David Bowie songs sung in Portuguese by Seu Jorge, video journals, interviews with cast and crew members, notably Henry Selick, who provided the film's beautiful animated fish, and a fold-out insert by Wes's brother Eric detailing the movie's ship. Here's the odd part though: the two-disc Criterion set sells for $32.99, while the single-disc DVD from Disney sells for only three dollars less ($29.99). Why would anyone in their right mind buy the single disc version?

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