Water Sports 

Wes Anderson wrestles with the deep in "The Life Aquatic."

"The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," Anderson's latest work, brings us up-to- date on oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) with a tour of his ship, the refitted oil tanker Belafonte. Most of the electronic charting equipment in the control room, it is important to note, doesn't work. But, Zissou points out, the Japanese-designed sauna employs a Swedish masseuse, the kitchen contains some of the most technologically advanced equipment on the ship, and the whole enterprise is flanked by two rare dolphins, trained as camera-toting scouts. "They're supposed to be highly intelligent," he says with an absentminded pause, "but I've never seen any evidence of it."

Zissou, we learn, is a fossil from the pre-digital age of nature documentary. The once-luminous oceanographer and his eclectic crew have run aground with their latest picture, the ponderous first installment of a two-part series. At low ebb of his career, Zissou's wife (Anjelica Huston) leaves him for a hotshot rival (Jeff Goldblum) just as an unknown son (Owen Wilson) and a potential love interest (Cate Blanchett) appear on the scene. The rest of the film deals with the development of these relationships amid the cartoonish activities of Team Zissou.

Anderson's interest in Jacques Cousteau has been well-documented (look at the book that upsets Max Fischer in "Rushmore"). He outfits the Zissou crew with the famous oceanographer's signature red knit caps, and the films they make have the primitive 16 mm quality of a '50s science-class filmstrip. They wear custom Adidas sneakers and rescue rare albino muskrats from the Arctic. Zissou's world is a holdover of midcentury Boy Scout chic, with scientific societies, fan clubs and secret handshakes, and the comedic result is a patina of deadpan goofy earnestness.

Who better to champion such a realm than Venkman from "Ghostbusters"? Murray deserves another Oscar nomination for fleshing out the film's centerpiece, a moribund counterpart to the famed French explorer. Unlike his character, the 54-year-old comedian seems only to ripen with age (though he seems a little older than 54). He's been in his share of dud movies during his long career, but you could argue he's never been in a dud role. One reason is that he always plays Bill Murray. And why not? There's no one better when you need a leading man to convey both negativity and resilience, absurdity and intelligence, melancholy and humor. Murray is a charming eddy of ardor and ennui. He is the movie's irregularly beating heart, his comic instincts providing ballast during zany moments that probably would have foundered with a less seaworthy captain at the helm.

The rest of the cast members are naturally second in command, but are Zissou material all the way. Blanchett, Goldblum and Huston are merely convincing, but there are also real surprises: Owen Wilson displays astute acumen for sand-dry wit, which he showcased in indie movies like "The Minus Man." Willem Dafoe plays Zissou's nervous lieutenant, a nipping Chihuahua of a researcher whose most important credential is being German. And most enchanting of all, Seu Jorge provides what can only be described as instrumental comic relief as a Brazilian guitarist translating David Bowie's glam rock masterpieces into acoustic Portuguese ballads.

Compared with "The Royal Tenenbaums," "The Life Aquatic" is far more convincing in its effort to shore farce with feeling. The film succeeds, for the most part, because Anderson adequately tempers his hyper-reality and resists drowning us in camp. The movie follows in the wake of a real person. Like Zissou, Cousteau really had a worldwide society, and like Zissou, really was known for his iconic red caps. The director smartly underplays this gimmick. His team, Zissou admits at one point, is just a bunch of outdated hacks. And we believe him.

Occasionally, and maddeningly, Anderson changes tack, sullying his pristinely restored universe with computer-generated creatures and silly pretentiousness. The last act in particular threatens to sink the entire project. Knocked off course by a dumbfounding plot development, Anderson's closing maneuvers are disappointingly ordinary. "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," alas, ends up adrift, a flawed masterpiece. But until then, it is a highly enjoyable voyage. *** S

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