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Review: An amusing 'Life Aquatic'

New Wes Anderson film suitably quirky, funny

By Paul Clinton

Life Aquatic
Bill Murray leads a crew of ocean explorers, including Angelica Huston (third from left), Cate Blanchett (second from right) and Willem Dafoe (far right), in "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou."
Wes Anderson
Bill Murray

(CNN) -- "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," the fourth film by idiosyncratic filmmaker Wes Anderson, is the director's most ambitious film to date.

Anderson's previous efforts -- "Bottle Rocket" (1996), "Rushmore" (1998) and "The Royal Tenenbaums" (2001) -- have earned him a reputation as one of Hollywood's most distinctive young voices, but haven't hit with a broad audience (though his fans are extremely loyal). But this time he's been given $50 million -- a good-sized Hollywood budget -- and no doubt the studio is hoping for a commercial success.

Still, fear not, Anderson fans: the 35-year-old filmmaker has not sold out to the studio system. Indeed, he's just been given a bigger canvas, and makes fine use of it.

"The Life Aquatic" is still full of his many trademark flourishes, such as a stiffly framed visual style, some highly eccentric characters, a flair for absurdity and barely hidden quirky cross-references, but it's also a good comedy with wider appeal.

Deadpan precision

The story for "The Life Aquatic" arose from Anderson's longtime fascination with oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, who the filmmaker confesses he discovered at a young age while watching National Geographic specials.

Like Cousteau, Anderson's title character, Steve Zissou -- played with deadpan precision by Bill Murray -- employs his friends and family as the staff for his explorations and underwater documentaries. The same, of course, could be said for Anderson, who's worked with many of the same actors and crew members from the beginning.

Zissou is a weary, self-involved yet emotionally needy explorer who loses his longtime friend and partner, Esteban (Seymour Cassel), during the filming of a deep-sea documentary. It appears the unfortunate Esteban became lunch for a killer "jaguar" shark, a mutant creature that may -- or may not -- exist.

Now, on the verge of being a washed-up has-been, Zissou is being helped by his heiress wife Eleanor (Angelica Huston) -- routinely called "the brains of the operation" -- in his effort to complete his last epic film, while at the same time seeking vengeance by finding the killer shark.

Life Aquatic
Zissou's ship, the Belafonte, is shown in life-sized cross-section, like a large dollhouse.

His crew of misfits includes a fawning German engineer, beautifully portrayed by Willem Dafoe in a rare comic role; his septuagenarian producer, Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon); a safety expert (who frequently serenades the crew with Portuguese versions of David Bowie songs), Pele dos Santos (Seu Jorge); and a "bond company stooge," Bill Ubell (Bud Cort, looking almost unrecognizably different from the young actor who starred in "Harold and Maude").

Also along for the voyage on Zissou's ship, the Belafonte -- a vessel lovingly showcased as if it were a life-sized dollhouse -- is a mysterious and pregnant journalist, played wonderfully by Cate Blanchett, and a young Southern gentleman and pilot named Ned Plimpton, portrayed by longtime Anderson friend and collaborator Owen Wilson. Plimpton claims to be the long-lost son Zissou never knew he had.

Waiting in the wings to foil all of Zissou's plans is archrival oceanographer Alistair Hennessey, played with barely restrained glee by Jeff Goldblum.

If this sounds like a bizarre group, remember: this is a Wes Anderson film.

A treat to watch

Rather then using any high-tech digital technology for the action at sea, Anderson elected to create the film's absurd world by using old fashion stop-action animation. The movie therefore has a handmade look that is perfect for Anderson's off-center point-of-view, including cleverly animated -- and very colorful -- sea creatures.

"The Life Aquatic" was shot along the Italian coastline and near Rome at the legendary Cinecitta studios. The locations give the film a continental atmosphere that would have been impossible to achieve in California, which adds to its off-kilter feel.

But, with all of Anderson's tricks and playthings spinning around, is "Life Aquatic" a movie?

Well, the plot may seem a little sluggish for those unfamiliar with the director, and the comedy askew. But, as with all Anderson movies, "The Life Aquatic" is character driven and -- though those characters are far from standard -- they're a treat to watch. Both Murray and Wilson are perfect for Anderson's eccentric worldview, and play off each other wittily and well.

It remains to be seen whether Anderson can appeal to a wider audience while still pleasing his core fans, but this sometimes fanciful high-seas action/adventure flick should please both loyalists and newcomers.

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