Bill Murray's surprising evolution from wiseass comedian to complicated character actor continues with The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, director Wes Anderson's eccentric, inventive, tragedy-tinged new comedy. In the title role, Murray plays, of all things, a Jacques Cousteau-like oceanographer/showman whose glory days are far behind him and who will manipulate just about anyone to achieve his big comeback. Murray's dry humor goes a long way toward making an essentially reprehensible character into a slyly entertaining portrait of middle-aged angst, egoism and neediness.

As he showed with The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson's sensibility is a curious blend of antic charm and edgy melancholy. The combination may not be to everyone's taste, but it marks him as a unique voice in movies, with a dynamic verbal and visual wit that defies his moody preoccupations.
As the film begins, Murray's Zissou is premiering his latest documentary, an account of an ill-fated voyage in which a beloved crewmember was eaten by a mysterious "jaguar shark." At a post-screening reception, he meets Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a pilot for "Air Kentucky" who is most probably his son from a long-ago affair. Before long, Steve recruits Ned for his next expedition, a quest to find the massive shark and take revenge. Tagging along is Jane Winslett-Richardson, a pregnant journalist working on a profile of Steve for Oceanographic Explorer magazine. It soon becomes all too clear that the under-financed Steve will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, from stealing the equipment of his wealthy arch-rival Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) to taking a short cut through unprotected waters that leads to dire consequences.

"I know I haven't been my best this past decade," Steve admits at one point, and Team Zissou is consumed with wistful nostalgia for the days when their leader inspired kids around the world, starred on TV, and authored fanciful adventure books. Murray perfectly captures the pained pride of a man who refuses to publicly acknowledge his decline, grumbling "I thought this was going to be a puff piece" when Jane asks stinging questions, or never bothering to find out the names of his naive unpaid interns. Though Steve is a scoundrel and a charlatan, we occasionally get glimpses of real emotion: his hasty retreat to his ship's bow when he first meets his likely son, or his sense of betrayal when he steals a look at Jane's journals. Hitting bottom, Steve eventually rises above disaster, leading a dangerous rescue mission, and even coming to terms with that magical jaguar shark-in a sequence that proves he's established a loyal family in spite of himself.
This is Murray's show, but everyone in the film is in tune with Anderson's quirky sensibility. Frequent co-writer Wilson didn't contribute to the script this time (Noah Baumbach fills that role), but he's charming as Steve's long-lost Southern-gentleman son. Blanchett is a delight as the often-frazzled Jane, while Anjelica Huston is effortlessly formidable as Steve's estranged wife, often billed as the real brains of the operation. Goldblum is hilarious as the pompous Hennessey, and Willem Dafoe scores in the comic role of Steve's fanatically jealous German engineer.

Just as big a star is Zissou's ship-cum-film studio the Belafonte, a converted World War II minesweeper first seen in cross-section view, a spectacular set built on the soundstages of the fabled Cinecittà. Production designer Mark Freidberg and cinematographer Robert Yeoman team with Anderson to produce another wide-screen movie packed with tableau-like details, with characters often facing the camera. As an added bonus, the great animator Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) contributes whimsical stop-motion sea creatures that add to the surreal feel of Zissou's odyssey. Former Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh supplies a zippy synthesizer-based score, while crewmember Seu George (Knockout Ned in City of God) bridges scenes with David Bowie songs rendered in disarming Portuguese. All these lively elements bring a much-needed lightness to leaven Anderson's dark obsessions and keep his Life Aquatic well afloat.