‘Aquatic’ gets stuck in the deep end

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Suffolk News-Herald

It started off so well.

&uot;Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,&uot; Wes Anderson’s recent Bill Murray sea vehicle, kicks off with a ton of humor, a great plot, and the groundlaying for one more of Murray’s trademark tongue-in-cheek performances that makes viewers think that he’s always one step ahead.

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The same work that helped turn &uot;Ghostbusters&uot; into one of the finest comedies of the past half-century and should have one him an Oscar nomination for &uot;Rushmore,&uot; his 1998 go-round with Anderson, Murray’s in the title role as a literally washed-up pot-smoking Jacques Cousteau/Captain Ahab wannabe, on the hunt for the shark that ate his best friend. His wife (Anjelica Huston, who makes viewers realize for the first time in while how hot she can be when she wants) is about to run off with her metrosexual ex (Jeff Goldblum, about as emotional as floor wax), and his sorta-kinda son Ned (Owen Wilson) has just shown up to get to know the dad who may or may not have abandoned him. There’s also a journalist (Cate Blanchett) who might not be as smart as she pretends to be. She’s also pregnant, which does little for Steve or Ned’s libido abilities.

The first part of the film does well with introductions. We get a bit of background on everyone – although not nearly enough, which we’ll explore in a minute – and a group of snappy one-liners and hysterical conversations keep things rolling for about an hour. The plot’s got a hunch of everything from &uot;Jaws&uot; to &uot;Finding Nemo,&uot; but it still has enough originality for us to keep watching. Eventually, a bunch of pirates show up, only to be overtaken by Zissou’s prowess and a bit of impossible-but-believe-it-just-for-the-entertainment action.

With its fuel stolen, however, the boat grinds to a stop. Unfortunately, so does the film.

From then on, it’s all sizzle and no steak to back it up. Zissou turns into a total jerk that’s both unfunny and uninteresting, and the rest of the crew follows suit. The wittiness that kept the flick going for the first part almost disappears, leaving us to stagger to an ending that fails to redeem its earlier promise. We get the feeling that Murray took the part after reading just half the script, because when we see a main character give up as completely as Zissou does, it’s near-impossible to stick around ourselves.

There’s a time to be serious, even in a comedy, and there’s a time to be funny. The point is to let the viewers decided which is which. That’s where &uot;Aquatic&uot; starts to drown in its own antics. Much like &uot;Meet the Parents,&uot; we don’t always know when we’re supposed to be laughing. When Zissou tries to intimidate his son or his crew into following him, we don’t know whether to scoff or snicker. Goldblum’s egomania doesn’t get far enough over the top to grab a laugh, as doesn’t Huston’s near catatonic voyage through the film. Wilson and Blanchett do alright for what he has, but like everyone else, they don’t get a wide enough range to become interesting.

That’s one of the biggest problems with &uot;Aquatic.&uot; It spends so much time trying to convince (and re-convince) viewers that Murray is &uot;The Man!&uot; that we’re not really allowed to cheer for anyone else. Willem Dafoe is a scream as a German engineer who’s got a father complex for Zissou, and Seu Jorge’s &uot;David Bowie in Portguese&uot; act is a scene-stealer, but they’re around for too few giggles. It’s not that Murray isn’t capable of carrying a film – remember &uot;Groundhog Day?&uot; – it’s just that, with so much else to work with, he shouldn’t have to try.

&uot;Aquatic&uot; starts off blazing through the water like a gassed-up motorboat. Long before the ending credits rolls, unfortunately, it becomes the Titanic.

Grade: C-