Bill Murray’s Moonage Daydreams in ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’

In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, one sees other actors besides Bill Murray — quite a lot of them, actually — but there are really no other performances to speak of. This is his movie, and everyone else, no matter how large a role they have, is really just a walk-on. To your average filmgoer, this sounds like a fine thing, after all, one doesn’t often say, “I would have liked that movie more if there’d been less Bill Murray.” This film-long tribute to Murray, with a script lovingly crafted for his deadpan delivery by Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums) and Noah Baumbach (Kicking And Screaming), is set up perfectly for his permanently bemused brand of sarcasm.

Murray ambles through his performance as oceanographer Steve Zissou, whose longtime partner was just eaten by a rare species of shark (“which may or may not exist”) and is determined to set off on an expedition to find the shark and kill it. When asked what scientific purpose this would satisfy, Zissou gives an almost imperceptible shrug and says, “revenge.” Much in the same way that Luke Wilson’s Richie in The Royal Tenenbaums had long outlived his brief fame as tennis pro by the time the film started, in Life Aquatic, Zissou’s best days are already behind him. The film is littered with the detritus of his past glory, many of them ‘70s-style nostalgia items like a special edition tennis shoe or a pinball machine featuring his bearded visage. The funding for Zissou’s increasingly poorly-received films is drying up, it looks like his wife is about to leave him, and there’s a reporter nosing around asking painful questions. So Zissou’s expedition — a half-assed, barely-planned affair — is much less a research trip than a has-been’s last hurrah, a perpetually stoned Ahab hunting his white whale (or jaguar shark, in this case).

Accompanying Zissou on this crackpot voyage is the multinational crew of Team Zissou, ranging from the manically depressed handyman Klaus (Willem Dafoe, proving he could turn his cinder-dark intensity to comedic effect) a radiantly pregnant Cate Blanchett as a nosey Australian reporter. Anderson also tosses on board Owen Wilson, playing Ned Plimpton, a pilot from Kentucky who just might be Zissou’s bastard son (“I would have named you Kingsley”) and is tagging along to get to know his father. Complications ensue when both men fall in love with Blanchett.

It’s a wonderfully misfit bunch, and all the more fun to be around for being jammed inside the Zissou boat, a banged-up seaborne jalopy lovingly designed like some sort of floating boy’s clubhouse, complete with sauna, wine collection, and a pair of trained albino dolphins with cameras strapped to their heads. Oh, and everybody on the team wears a uniform red cap and has a Glock strapped to their thigh.

Standing slightly apart from the comic action is crew member Pelé (Seu Jorge), there primarily to strum acoustic Portuguese renditions of Ziggy Stardust-phase David Bowie songs like “Life on Mars” and “Five Years”. Jorge’s ghostly covers provide a sly counterpoint to the rest of this soundtrack, one of the decade’s greatest, with its peppy New Wave Mark Mothersbaugh tinklings on the one end and killer sonic blasts ranging from the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy” (which, it turns out, is a perfectly good backing track for a shootout with pirates)to Bowie’s own “Queen Bitch”. Viewed in the present, Life Aquatic, with its Rolodex of styles and woozy disconnection from reality, its homage to the late Bowie’s shapeshifting ’70s personas and quests feels ever more potent and meaningful.

Although The Life Aquatic is replete with the out-of-left-field manias and non-sequiturs one expects from a Wes Anderson film, unlike Rushmore or the far superior Tenenbaums, there’s no real conflict to push its characters into action. With his primary nemesis a possibly mythical shark, zero chemistry between himself and Wilson, and no human adversaries who prove any real contest (with the exception of the regal and underused Anjelica Huston as his caustic wife), Murray doesn’t have anybody else to play off of.

This is one of the only flaws in an otherwise wonderstruck piece of filmmaking. Murray’s best moments tend to come when his anger has a target. Here his sarcastic ennui envelops the film, further enhancing an already dreamlike atmosphere that make it tempting to read this whole film as a delusion taking place inside Zissou’s mind. Although Anderson’s films have always flirted with the fantastic, they have never been this otherworldly. Surrealism flickers through The Life Aquatic, especially in the lizards and underwater creatures animated by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) and purposefully looking like nothing that has ever actually existed. Or maybe it’s all due to the fact that Murray himself has always been an alien, an aloof and kingly Ziggy occasionally deigning to dwell here amongst us humans.

Even though Team Zissou doesn’t have much of a clear mission and the film’s subplots are scattered willy-nilly, Anderson and Baumbach’s script finds plenty of ways to keep viewers engaged. It helps that the writers are aware of one crucial storytelling rule: Everything is better with pirates. It’s a fully realized cartoon world, with daring rescues, an awesome headquarters (Team Zissou has its own Mediterranean island compound) and some of the greatest sidekicks this side of the Justice League.

This may a film composed only of little moments, but what moments they are.

Title: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Director: Wes Anderson
Writers: Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach
Cast: Bill Murray, Angelica Huston, Cate Blanchett, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, Noah Taylor, Bud Cort, Seu Jorge, Seymour Cassel
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
Year of release: 2004

(A version of this review was originally published at filmcritic.com)