It's hard to think of anyone or anything less urgently in need of parody than Jacques Cousteau, the saintly French oceanographer whose underseas documentaries, from the '50s through the '80s, did so much to make the world aware of the beauty and fragility of our watery ecosystem. But the sheer audacity of this basic joke--its awesome satiric irrelevance--is the crucial thing about The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. If you go with it, you'll love the film. If you don't, you'll just sit there wondering how (and why) Wes Anderson, the director and a co-writer (with Noah Baumbach), thought this thing up, talked someone into financing it and somehow drew you the viewer into spending good money on this exercise in deadpan postmodernism.
For those of us who think this is the best comedy of 2004, the genius of the movie lies in its relocation. Yes, Zissou wears a little red wool cap like Cousteau's. And, yes, he pilots a World War II minesweeper converted into a seagoing laboratory, also like Cousteau's. But it is no longer the famed Calypso. It is now called the Belafonte (a joke nod to the Caribbean crooner). And though the boat contains a sauna, a hot tub and a purloined cappuccino machine, its wiring goes on the fritz at awkward moments and its submersible has definitely seen better days.
So, alas, has Zissou. He is, to be sure, a man with a mission--to avenge himself on a "jaguar" shark that gobbled his best friend and to make one last documentary about his quest. But that's not so easy. Once the monarch of the seas, he is now forced to scrounge humiliatingly for sponsorship in a crass and unfeeling world. In Bill Murray's sublime characterization, Zissou has the stunned air of a celebrity who has lost his mojo but can't admit it.
Oh, sure, he can still snap misleading orders at his comically feckless crew (led by Willem Dafoe), yearn impotently for a pregnant journalist (Cate Blanchett), hope a visiting fan (Owen Wilson) will turn out to be his previously unacknowledged son, and despise his rival (Jeff Goldblum), who knows how to navigate the modern world and has the swell boat to prove it.
Mostly, though, Zissou prefers to mourn the lost past, aided by the odd joint, a Campari and soda, or an encounter with his all-too-knowing estranged wife (Anjelica Huston), who was obviously the brains of his operation when it was humming.
The movie--bless us and save us--does not hum. Its pace is slow, musing, pause-filled. Lots of its best gags are set off by long, slow fuses. And some are quick visual puns, taking place in the corner of the frame or with the camera dollying past them, not seeming to care whether you catch them or not.
There is an important exception to that rule: the school of animated, psychedelic marine creatures Zissou and his crew encounter. The fishies look as if they have just swum off a Peter Max poster--all gaudy innocence. They're kind of silly and kind of wonderful. They perfectly symbolize what this movie is goofily, even campily trying to say--that the sweet Cousteau spirit is lost to us and that, maybe, this film is not as irrelevant as it dreamily pretends to be. --By Richard Schickel