Dir: Wes Anderson. US.2004. 118mins.

Bill Murray owes anenormous debt of gratitude to writer/director Wes Anderson, whose wonderfullydry, absurdist films have stretched the actor in ways the comedy star mightnever have attempted on his own.

Forced to venture outsidehis comfort zone into uncharted emotional waters, Murray has delivered oneoutstanding performance after another in recent years, first with hismulti-faceted and achingly human portrait in Rushmore, then The RoyalTenenbaums (both directed by Anderson), followed by Sofia Coppola's LostIn Translation (which won him a BAFTA Best Actor) last year.

Now The Life Aquatic WithSteve Zissou is set to bring Murray another Golden Globe nomination, if notan Oscar nod, given the extraordinarily tough competition this year and thefact that the Academy traditionally overlooks comedy.

With their sophisticated,deadpan sensibilities, Anderson's films have yet to score a direct box officehit (1998's Rushmore grossed $17m domestically; 2001's The Royal Tenenbaumstook $52m in the US plus $19m overseas) and it's unlikely the new film,reportedly his most expensive to date, will be more than modestly successful(although ancillary looks stronger).

Furthermore, despite itsnumerous charms, The Life Aquatic can't match either the cockeyedwinsomeness or the perfectly balanced blend of comedy and melancholy that made RushmoreAnderson's most satisfying work.

Written by Anderson andBaumbach (making this the first screenplay not co-authored by Owen Wilson andAnderson), The Life Aquatic concerns eccentric, once respectedoceanographer Steve Zissou, whose derring-do at the bottom of the sea hasserved as the basis for a series of TV specials and documentary films.

Zissou's fame has ebbed awayhowever and, despite a still healthy dose of arrogance, he is feelinguncharacteristically vulnerable at the moment, wistful and desperate to regainhis past glory.

Sharing Zissou's exploits,as well as filming them, is his ragtag, multicultural crew - including hisdevoted but emotionally fragile German engineer Klaus (Dafoe, in a rare comedyturn) - who are known collectively as Team Zissou. In their red, knittedstretch caps and polyester, aquamarine uniforms, the seafarers look morecomical than nautical, which is only fitting given that their enthusiasm faroutweighs their skills.

With a nod to HermanMelville, the story concerns Steve's determination to track down the jaguarshark that devoured his best friend on an earlier expedition.

A second, ultimately moreimportant plot line, concerns courteous, soft-spoken young airline pilot Ned(Wilson) who may or may not be Steve's illegitimate son. Given the plausibilityof the assertion, Steve welcomes Ned with, what for him, at least, qualifies asopen arms, inviting him to join his crew. Steve's estranged wife Eleanor(Huston), his primary professional rival Hennessey (Goldblum), a pregnantBritish journalist named Jane (Blanchett), and a gang of bloodthirsty piratesadd additional complications to his life.

As with Rushmore and TheRoyal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic deals with a deeply flawed,middle-aged man, whose arrogance and certitude have recently fallen victim toan overwhelming sense of fallibility and even failure. He sees his search forthe jaguar shark and, even more importantly, his relationship with a young manwho might be his son as a way to reclaim - possibly even to redeem - himself.

Anderson has a knack formelding uproarious deadpan comedy with an unexpected sense of pathos andmelancholia. His last three films - especially as personified by Murray'scharacters - are the equivalent of the Siamese twin theatrical masks whichjuxtapose a smiling face with a tearful one. The humour, which is both visualand verbal, proves thin at times but overall it hits its mark - and always inadmirably understated fashion.

The Life Aquatic is a bit more chaotic than Anderson's other films,with the environment seemingly less controlled and the storyline lesscontained. The comedy also seems broader, even haphazard, with Team Zissouracing around in energetic but intentionally inept fashion. The actors acquitthemselves well enough, although Murray doesn't reach the heights of either Rushmoreor Lost In Translation. He and Wilson have a nice rapport, as do Murrayand Huston.

Anderson's visual style hasremained unusually consistent over the years. Working for the fourth time withtalented cinematographer Yeoman - and in anamorphic for the third time - hefavours wide lenses and deep focus. It's a distinctive perspective and one thatworks especially well with Anderson's ensemble casts since it gets so manycharacters into a single frame. While The Life Aquatic doesn't takeAnderson - or Murray - in a terribly new or challenging direction emotionally,it is an enjoyable adventure nonetheless.

Pro co: American Empirical Pictures, Touchstone Pictures
US dist:
Buena Vista
Intl dist:
Exec prods:
Rudd Simmons
Wes Anderson, BarryMendel, Scott Rudin
Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach
Robert D. Yeoman
Pro des:
Mark Friedberg
David Moritz
Mark Mothersbaugh
Main cast:
Bill Murray, OwenWilson, Willem Dafoe, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum