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3 out of 4 stars


The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou***

Directed by Wes Anderson

Written by Wes Anderson

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and Noah Baumbach

Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston

Classification: 14A

Opens Dec. 25

Two predictions. One: Anyone who's ever watched a Jacques Cousteau documentary will bust a gut laughing at the satiric high points of this oh-so-clever picture. Two: Anyone who hasn't will look at everyone who has and wish he were in on all the jokes. The Life Aquatic is a movie deeply immersed in movie lore, and the more seasoned the swimmer the richer the experience.

The lore, in this case, is the nature/adventure doc of the kind personified by the seafaring Cousteau. For the benefit of the neophytes, the genre goes something like this: Brave explorers head out under the banner of science in search of camera-worthy excitement, taking care to shoot the tragedies and triumphs that come their way and that cement their bond as an intrepid family. For director Wes Anderson, the keyword here is family. He's spent most of his short yet unique career trawling about in the midst of dysfunctional clans, most recently and hilariously in The Royal Tenenbaums. So the notion of upping the ante to focus on a warped Cousteau-like ménage, with the further comic bonus of poking fun at the filmmaking craft, must have seemed irresistible.

Speaking of warped, say hi to the casting coup: Bill Murray as the expedition's patriarch. Cue the funny twists that, early on, come thick and fast. Murray's Steve Zissou is Cousteau as a faded icon, an aging salt who "hasn't made a hit documentary in years," and whose once-proud ship -- not the Calypso but the Belafonte -- is a rusty tub as superannuated as its captain. Everything about the guy has withered except his oversized ego, which sees a fat opportunity in a fresh tragedy. During their last voyage, his first mate got eaten by a "jaguar shark," a spot of bad/good luck that Steve hopes to spin into a fetching story line for his next film. Yep, kill the killer fish. He's determined to sell the financial backers on the merits of a revenge plot.

Fortune smiles on him again when the blond and strapping Ned (Owen Wilson) wanders into his island compound. Seems that our famously promiscuous leader once knew Ned's mother -- indeed, knew her so well that the young man just may be his son. Or maybe not. No matter. Figuring that a tale of confused parentage can only boost his doc's market value, Steve is quick to point a camera at his perhaps-offspring, inviting him to join the team and to don its uniform -- pale blue pantsuit for everyday wear, matching Speedo for hot-tub strategy sessions, outmoded track shoes left over from a defunct sponsorship deal, and don't forget the ubiquitous red tuque.

As these doings unfold, the deft script (by Anderson and Noah Baumbach) is busy seasoning the yarn with a wonderful collection of ocean-going oddities. Let's start with the latest in a lengthy line of Mrs. Zissous: Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) is the actual brains behind the operation -- unlike hubby, she knows the Latin names of all those underwater thingies. Then there's the caustic British journalist (Cate Blanchett) who, very skeptical and very pregnant, shows up to do a hatchet-job on Steve. At night in her cabin, she puts away her poison pen long enough to read Proust to her unborn baby (leaving pediatricians everywhere to ponder the long-term effects on the poor child).

Among the polyglot crew members, a fanatically loyal German (Willem Dafoe) can barely contain his jealousy of the upstart Ned. But even his savage breast is soothed by the sweet music of the Brazilian sailor -- Pele, of course -- who, permanently propped on the bow deck at sunset, serenely strums his guitar while crooning Portuguese translations of David Bowie's greatest hits. Joining them are a band of eager interns from "North Alaska University," along with the "bond-company stooge," a nerdy yet necessary evil (Bud Cort) recruited by the money men to safeguard their budget.

That's quite a parade, with still more to come. But, thanks to his flair for dialogue, Anderson keeps the whole ensemble marching along with witty dispatch. The tone he's after, and usually hits, is pitched somewhere between an absurd mockumentary and a more naturalistic comedy. As in Tenenbaums, Anderson knows how to push the farcical stuff -- the quirky, the weird, the bizarre -- up to but not quite beyond the pale of reality.

So we hear the obvious artifice in Ned's stage-thick Southern accent (back home, he's a pilot for "Air Kentucky"). And we see it in the cross-sectional set of the Belafonte, shot in full to make the ship's interior look like a cardboard cutaway, or a sort of nautical ant-farm. But this fakery -- and what's any film, even a documentary, but fakery? -- is definitely purposeful. Always, in an Anderson movie, the really wacky has its roots somewhere in the gospel truth. For example, watch how he uses stop-motion animation to portray the exotic marine life, such made-up species as sugar crabs and paisley octopi and rat-tail envelope fish. What better than a cartoon technique to fabricate undersea creatures whose real-life counterparts are themselves so utterly fantastic and, well, so cartoon-like?

And who better than Bill Murray to mirror the movie's ambiguities? He's spent his performing life tip-toeing along an identically delicate line between the fabulous and the credible, the ironic and the sincere. Murray is that rare star who can appear to wink at the camera while still remaining entirely in character. Here, his Zissou is simultaneously a satirized fool and an aspiring father, both in the same busy frame.

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All this is fun, especially if you're familiar with the original template. But it's not enough fun to sustain a two-hour journey. Around the two-thirds mark, about when the crew leaves the ship to chase after a marauding gang of Filipino pirates, the conceit wears a little thin and the cleverness begins to feel slight. At that point, the story meanders, only to end rather abruptly -- a sure sign that the writers boxed themselves and their premise into a tight corner.

Still, by then, The Life Aquatic has generated enough good will, and good gags, to float most of us through the shallows. And while the rookie swimmers may not get all the parody jokes, they'll have no trouble with my favourite. It's the recurring one that has Zissou persistently bad-mouthing his penned-in pair of research dolphins. Why? Turns out the squeaking things are truly, deeply, frustratingly stupid.

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