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The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou finds wisdom in the struggle to keep it real.

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You could be forgiven if you spent much of the first hour of Wes Anderson’s smartly poignant The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou thinking you were watching a 1970s period piece. The movie-premiere footage that unfolds during the opening scene—the latest nature documentary by veteran undersea explorer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and his crew on the Belafonte—bears the saturated, grainy look of classroom filmstrips. The ship’s “high-tech” communications room is full of reel-to-reel tapes and clunky computers. David Bowie songs spill through the soundtrack—though many of them are acoustic, Portuguese-language versions.

It’s not the film that’s stuck in the ’70s, though—it’s Zissou himself. Once upon a time, 25 years ago, he had a fan club, look-alike action figures and a pinball machine celebrating his fame. Now he watches himself grow increasingly irrelevant—unable to secure funding for his movies, his star eclipsed by a slick rival (Jeff Goldblum). Steve Zissou has a picture of himself in his own head, and that picture in no way resembles the reality of his current existence.

In many ways, The Life Aquatic revolves around that disconnect between “reality” and reality, weaving a sly take on the true-TV culture into a wise comedy-drama about growing old gracefully. As the film opens, Zissou’s every moment seems focused on resuscitating his public image. He allows journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) along on his latest voyage, hoping for a puff-piece magazine cover story. He bonds with Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson)—who may be his illegitimate son—less out of paternal interest than a sense that their reunion could make a good subplot for his movie. Even the stated purpose of the voyage—finding the “jaguar shark” that killed Zissou’s right-hand man—seems born more of the quest for a marketing hook than a quest for vengeance.

Bill Murray has made a career out of finding something endearing in casual self-absorption, but there’s something particularly nifty about the way he and Anderson navigate Zissou’s growth. From petty, off-the-cuff homophobia to reckless disregard for the safety of others when a great “moment” presents itself—his cowboy attempt to repel pirates who have taken over the Belafonte is priceless—he’s nobody’s idea of a nice guy. But he’s fodder for another effortlessly impressive late career performance by Murray, who worked beautifully with Anderson on Rushmore before his Oscar-nominated role in Lost in Translation. Like Zissou, Murray is at the point where he is pondering his legacy, and he’s doing plenty to make that legacy impressive.

Anderson, meanwhile, is building on his own legacy—Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums—at an early age. Plenty of viewers and critics have groused at what they perceived as the detached, hermetically-sealed quality of Anderson’s films, but even his naysayers have to acknowledge that this material is perfectly matched to his style. The Life Aquatic revolves around the idea that Zissou, though a documentary filmmaker, manipulates his world to make it look a certain way to outsiders. Every funky twist Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach throw out works perfectly in that context, from the elaborate cutaway-dollhouse set of the Belafonte through which characters wander, to the fanciful stop-motion sea creatures created by Nightmare Before Christmas auteur Henry Selick. He’s still a master of wickedly funny master shots, but Aquatic feels like it adds up to much more than winking fun at the expense of Anderson’s characters.

None of which is to suggest that it’s a pitch-perfect film. The script meanders through the relationships between supporting characters, never quite finding a convincing connection between Blanchett’s subplot as a single mother-to-be and Zissou’s story. And Anderson has been so disinclined to wear his heart on his sleeve in the past that the climactic confrontation between Zissou and his personal Moby Dick might feel like a goof on the notion of emotional catharsis. But Anderson, despite his detractors’ complaints of artificiality, is keeping it real—and the result is a surprisingly mature study of what keeping it real really means. The Life Aquatic emerges from the 1970s into a modern world where the bravest act is showing the world the side of yourself that’s not a fictional character.

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU ***.5 Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett Rated R

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