Saying that a movie starring Bill Murray is strange hardly seems a revelation, but "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" is certainly out there in its own little universe. The obvious cinematic reference point for this 2004 film is 2001's "The Royal Tenenbaums," since Wes Anderson directed both of them, but this quirky film has a better payoff, although I would be hard pressed to argue out exactly how that is accomplished. Murray is the hook to get people to see this movie, but the rest of the fishing paraphernalia belongs to Anderson.
Steve Zissou (Murray) is either a parody of, or a homage to deep sea explorer Jacques Cousteau (it works either way but I lean towards the latter interpretation). Zissou has been making documentaries for decades, but now his star is in decline and to add insult to injury, his best friend is devoured by a "Jaguar Shark." This turns Zissou into Captain Ahab but before he can set sail on the good ship "Belafonte" (famous for his calypso singing, which, it turns out, was the name of Cousteau's own good ship), a couple of newcomers show up for the ride. Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), appears to be the son that Zissou never knew he had, and Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) is a journalist who is doing an article on Zissou and his quest. Zissou is smitten with Jane, who takes a fancy to Ned. Meanwhile Zissou's estranged wife, Eleanor (Angelica Huston), continues to be the brains behind Team Zissou, Klaus (Willem Dafoe) remains Zissou's right-hand man, Bill (Bud Cort) is along to count the money, and even rival Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) lends assistance, even if he does not know about it until it is too late to say "no."
Henry Selick ("The Nightmare Before Christmas") does the animation for all of the underwater sea life in glowing pastel colors, and that aspect of the film helps to clue us into the wry surrealism of its humor. The other big clue is that one of the crewmembers sings David Bowie songs in Portuguese. Oh, and then there is the fact that the there are scenes taking place on a cutaway version of the "Belafonte" that would also be a clue. The problem is that there are patches where you think we are supposed to be taking things more seriously than we are, especially when the title character emerges from his lethargy to try and do something about all the down spiraling in his life. Still, despite the steady sense of unease that afflicted me through most of the movie, I liked the ending of "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," both in terms of the underwater climax and the on shore resolution. Just do not ask me to show my work on how I came up with the rating.