Easily the oddest entry in director Wes Anderson's distinctive filmography, The Life Aquatic is nevertheless a charming and consistently amusing fable of redemption set aboard the good ship Belafonte, a research vessel under the command of an aging, dangerously self-absorbed oceanographer/ documentary filmmaker named Steve Zissou (Bill Murray).
The film opens at the premiere of a film documenting Zissou's latest odyssey, a voyage on which his best friend and close associate was eaten alive by an unknown species of giant shark. As the distraught oceanographer prepares Team Zissou for a return trip to the same waters to locate and kill said shark, he encounters two people who will ultimately accompany -- and deeply affect -- him on the mission: a journalist writing his profile for a science magazine (Cate Blanchett) and an enthusiastic young man who may or may not be Zissou's son (Owen Wilson).
Murray is so understated that at times he seems doped. Yet beneath Zissou's flip, cynical, bull-headed and slightly misogynistic exterior crouches a sympathetically tragic character harboring surprising emotional depth. Though acutely flawed and obsessive, he's also courageous and loyal. He places an enormous amount of trust in the people around him.
The humor is subtle and bone-dry but steadily delivers laughs. As in other Anderson films, reality is reinterpreted. The scene where Ned follows Steve through the ship as they argue is all done on a cutaway set of the Belafonte where the exacting detail of each room is willfully undermined by the obvious artificiality of the huge, carefully crafted set piece. Adding to the disorientation is the fact that some of the characterizations (particularly Anjelica Huston as Zissou's estranged wife and Wilson's almost impossibly na & iuml;ve Ned) are highly stylized and seemingly underdeveloped.
But once you get past its minor flaws, you discover that Life Aquatic is a rich, rewarding film that reveals its soul and charms deliberately, improving with multiple viewings.
In keeping with the Anderson tradition of great soundtracks, the film features a distinctive collection of cuts from Devo, the Zombies, the Stooges, Sigur Ros and David Bowie.