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Ocean Wonderland 

Can a filmmaker show artistic growth from one film to the next without necessarily having made a "better" film? When it comes to Wes Anderson's fourth film, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, that's a tough question to answer -- but one that deserves asking.

For sure, Anderson has continually enlarged his landscapes, starting with the teeny-weeny Bottle Rocket and continuing with Rushmore and the almost baroque The Royal Tenenbaums. Through each have run threads of self-delusion, square pegs, stunted growth and the sometimes quixotic love quest (in whatever form). There's no denying that Anderson's ambitions have grown further still with The Life Aquatic, a comedic sea adventure that, right there, suggests biting off more than Anderson has previously chewed. A sea adventure? Shot on location around Italy?

With its saltwater-flecked atmosphere and its $50 million price tag -- the probable price tag of his previous three films combined -- Anderson definitely is reaching for something more. And while The Life Aquatic is another hilarious effort with loads of wit and probable hidden layers, it just might be that, like some of his heroes, Anderson is a little ahead of himself. Who knows if it has anything to do with collaborating with Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming) and not traditional co-writer Owen Wilson.

Anderson's characters are constantly trying to reach beyond themselves without initially figuring out how to get there. They're staring at the finish line without appreciating the nuances of the race. And, for the most part, they're terribly charming for it. Bottle Rocket's Dignan (Owen Wilson), Rushmore's Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), The Royal Tenenbaums' titular patriarch (Gene Hackman) and now Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) all make us laugh with their brazen lack of self-awareness. It should be left to the individual viewer to decide whether some of that humor is based on Anderson's possible desire to make us feel a little superior to these characters, or maybe more simply because we love rebels of any and all stripes. After all, coloring outside the lines is still colorful.

But I also wonder whether Bill Murray either nicely set up this performance -- or stole some of its thunder -- with his Oscar-nominated turn as a similarly middle-aged has-been-to-be in Lost in Translation. Just as he was in this movie and Rushmore, Murray's shameless mugging is in near art form here, portraying a Jacques Cousteau knock-off oceanographer who's just smart enough to surround himself with a much smarter crew and then bask in the glow of his award-winning films.

As Scott Rudin pointed out in Christian Moerk's excellent New York Times piece last month, The Life Aquatic is Anderson's Day for Night. There's so much filmmaking symbolism floating in the waters of The Life Aquatic that you'd have to be seasick not to notice. Zissou is past his prime, hasn't made a hit ocean documentary in nine years, worries that he's lost his touch, then just as he's trying to launch a comeback has to make artistic compromises to get the project financed.

Granted, Zissou is in it more for the recaptured glory; he's trying to find value before the winter of his life sets in, he's trying to regain the respect of his more talented wife (Anjelica Huston, who can now play these roles for Anderson in her sleep), and hopes that it might connect him to the new crewmate Ned (Owen Wilson), who shows up claiming he might be Zissou's long-lost illegitimate son.

That's just scratching the surface of this subplot-laden film. There's the pregnant but partner-less National Geographic-ish reporter Jane Winslett-Richardson, who poses romantic problems for Ned and romantic and professional challenges for Steve. There's an insecure second mate Klaus (Willem Dafoe), a chain-smoking engineer Wolodarsky (Noah Taylor), a bond-company "stooge" (Bud Cort) and, most elliptical of all, crewmate Péle (Seu Jorge, City of God's Knockout Ned), who serves up a Greek chorus of sorts with his Portuguese renditions of David Bowie tunes. Throw in a rival oceanographer (Jeff Goldblum), an aging producer (Michael Gambon) and a marauding band of pirates, and you've got yourself one fairly prodigious ensemble.

This is, in fact, Anderson's second consecutive stab at an ensemble piece, and it's fair to suggest that this time he's loaded up one idiosyncrasy too many -- though there's danger in this assumption, too, as repeated viewings of The Royal Tenenbaums is the stuff of film-class delight. (Trust me on this one.)

Maybe it's better instead to focus on Anderson's familiar comic touch, his hip though thoroughly sincere desire to once again offer his hero a shot at redemption, and to marvel at the wonderful aquatic world he has constructed with that $50 million. Recruiting award-winning animator Henry Selic (The Nightmare Before Christmas), Anderson creates an aquatic world of his own, one featuring richly colored "Sugar Crabs" and "Crayon Pony Fish" and one that is entirely mythic and fantastical. For Anderson, the sea is yet another way of looking at his own search for a more perfect world. Forgive him if, for a few brief moments, he looks as if he's treading water, because he's always willing to keep diving a little deeper.

click to enlarge Ties that bind: Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) tries to forge a father-son relationship with his new crew member, Ned (Owen Wilson), in Wes Anderson's latest, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.
  • Ties that bind: Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) tries to forge a father-son relationship with his new crew member, Ned (Owen Wilson), in Wes Anderson's latest, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.
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