Nobody does resigned sadness like Bill Murray, and in Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" he delivers an intricate variety of melancholy: quiet sorrow, self-absorbed...

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Nobody does resigned sadness like Bill Murray, and in Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” he delivers an intricate variety of melancholy: quiet sorrow, self-absorbed stillness, disappointment tempered with ever-so-slight amusement.

As oceanographer Steve Zissou, maker of undersea adventure movies that resemble the sort of blurry educational filmstrips that many of us watched in our grade-school libraries, he’s perfectly controlled, as is the film, a deadpan comedy/adventure about a crew’s expedition to find and wreak vengeance on the jaguar shark that killed Zissou’s best friend.

The problem? The heart of “The Life Aquatic,” presumably, was lost at sea.

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In “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Anderson honed his meticulous, unique style, assembling a gifted acting company to play a group of unhappy loners trying to find their place in a confusing world. And in both of those movies, warmth crept in, and we fell in love with sad-eyed Max Fischer or desperate Royal Tenenbaum, sympathizing with their struggles and rejoicing in their triumphs.

“Life Aquatic” has the Anderson trademarks: the odd costumes (Zissou’s team wears red knitted caps, like a troupe of misshapen elves), the formal, Christmas-card like framing, the deadpan dialogue that means far more than it seems. And it’s often dazzlingly beautiful, particularly the fish animation by Henry Selick — a pair of “sugar crabs,” nattily striped, perform a choreographed dance — and the intricate cross-sections of the ship, which seems like a young boy’s dream, complete with space for “science projects.”

The cast — including an ever-smoking Anjelica Huston, a pregnant Cate Blanchett, Owen Wilson as the Southern pilot (a co-pilot, to be precise, with Air Kentucky) who may or may not be Steve’s long-lost son, and Willem Dafoe as a worshipful crew member — is top-notch, and certainly “Life Aquatic” is always watchable. Anderson is always surprising us with detail or with odd plot twists, and the actors find numerous inventive twists on their deadpan personas.

But ultimately, it’s hard to connect with these odd, distant people, and though the film has an ending that finds some grace, it’s too little, too late. Perhaps the missing ingredient is Wilson, who co-wrote “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” as well as their 1996 debut “Bottle Rocket,” but sat this one out (Anderson co-wrote “Life Aquatic” with Noah Baumbach). Anderson seems to be confining himself to an ever smaller, ever more stylized box, and the strain is showing; let’s hope this talented filmmaker rights himself with his next project.

Opening Dec. 25


“The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,”
with Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, Noah Taylor, Bud Cort. Directed by Wes Anderson, from a screenplay by Anderson and Noah Baumbach. 118 minutes. Rated R for language, some drug use and partial nudity. Several theaters.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725