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Zissou's Issues 

by Ed Symkus

There's a great, impassioned speech in Ghost Busters, in which Dr. Peter Venkman, played by Bill Murray, yelps about "dogs and cats, living together, mass hysteria!"

Oddly, in Wes Anderson's new film about a hunt for a killer shark, dogs and cats (and even birds) do live together, harmoniously. It's the people who can't get along.

In The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, the title character, played in earnest deadpan by Bill Murray, finds himself at a very shaky point in his life. Zissou is an oceanographer-filmmaker, but hasn't had a hit for a long time and is watching his career hit the skids. On his most recent expedition, his best friend Esteban (Seymour Cassel) was eaten by a huge jaguar shark. That would be enough to break the strongest of men, which Zissou is not. But he's also still in love with his ex-wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston); is at odds with another oceanographer-filmmaker, Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), who was also once married to Eleanor; and is rocked when a fellow named Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) appears and announces that he may or may not be Zissou's son from a long-ago fling.

That's a lot to digest about one character in a film that's supposed to be a comedy. While Zissou certainly is quirky and has plenty of funny moments, when the film's central family issues come welling up, they're far more complicated than comic. There's tension among crew members (a family unto itself) on the island that houses the Zissou compound, headquarters for the quest to hunt down and film the jaguar shark. Ned and ship's engineer Claus (Willem Dafoe, in a rare comic performance) relate only through jealousy -- each wants to be thought of as Steve's son. Later, when the crew hits the seas on their tattered boat, the Belafonte, there's no mistaking the intense dislike between Steve and Alistair, who captains his own sleek, well-equipped vessel.

If this sounds melodramatic, remember that it's Anderson in charge, this time along with The New Yorker's Noah Baumbach as a writing partner. Naturally, then, there's a great deal of magic and whimsicality to the story. A bloom of glowing jellyfish on a beach literally lights up a nighttime scene. As Zissou explains to a nosy, pregnant reporter (Cate Blanchett, who really was pregnant at the time) that music is piped into his diving helmet, we hear the music and watch as Zissou does up a funny little dance to it.

Of course, as with every Anderson film, the music is itself a character. Anderson's regular composer, Mark Mothersbaugh, trumps his own creativity with his trademark tinkly score that smoothly floats from simple electronica to full orchestral arrangement. As a bonus, we get the on-camera performances of David Bowie tunes -- in Portuguese -- by Brazilian singer Seu Jorge, who acts, at least visually, as a kind of Greek chorus to the action.

There are myriad plot ideas floating around the film, not all of them carried to what a general audience might consider a satisfying conclusion. At the same time, everything plays very slowly and not a lot happens -- save for a pirate attack or two. And at various points, it's easy to forget that this is supposed to be about a revenge-driven, Moby Dick-like search for a killer shark. But even if it comes across as both too much and too little to take in at once -- just like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, the three Anderson films before this one -- it'll be stuck in your head for days. Slowly, it will become clear that watching The Life Aquatic was an enchanting experience.

Publication date: 12/30/04

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