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Thursday, Dec. 23, 2004 02:21 am

movie reviews

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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Stale, contrived Aquatic charts a familar course

Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou deals with many of the same themes he explored in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. It also features a group of emotionally damaged or stunted people, each searching for genuine emotional connections with others. Anderson has proved himself particularly adept at creating quirky yet believable characters. As a result, his films have a deceptively powerful emotional pull: He puts his characters in hilarious and ironic situations, we let our guard down, and we get blindsided.

All of these elements are present in Aquatic -- except that this film lacks heart. There's an inexplicable distance between the characters and the audience that Anderson fails to bridge. Rushmore and Tenenbaums were imaginative and fresh, but Aquatic feels contrived and stale, as though Anderson is simply returning to a formula he's perfected. Lackluster performances from key members of its cast also drown the film.

Anderson favorite Bill Murray is Steve Zissou, a hack undersea documentarian whose career has suffered a series of setbacks. Things are so bad that even his French fans are starting to turn their backs on him. Adding insult to injury, his wife, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), who's been correctly identified as the brains behind Team Zissou, has left him, and his mentor and friend Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel) has been killed by a rare jaguar shark during the production of his last film. Zissou vows to hunt down and kill this man-eater, which will be the subject of his next film, if he can get the funding. His agent, Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon), fails in this regard, but money for the production does comes from an unlikely source: Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), an airline pilot with an inheritance who shows up claiming to be Zissou's son. His appearance drives a wedge between Zissou and his first mate, Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), and the presence of reporter Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), who insists on chronicling the voyage for a prestigious scientific journal, adds to the tension.

Suffice it to say that the plot takes so many twists and turns that it seems as though Anderson is floundering just as much as Zissou. Add to the mix a horde of modern pirates, and Anderson's attempts to keep us engaged and amused seem desperate as well. The film simply doesn't work.

The genius behind Anderson's films is his innate eye for casting. and it would seem as though he's spot-on here with the ensemble he's put together. Unfortunately, Murray sleepwalks through his role, Wilson is distracted by a Southern accent he never masters, and Huston delivers an uncharacteristically bland performance. Two exceptions: Blanchett shines by giving the only fully realized and grounded turn in the film, and Dafoe finds a tenderness in a role that would have come off as a mere caricature in lesser hands.

In the end, this is a movie that you end up wanting to like much more than you actually do. Anderson's heart may have been in the right place when he wrote Aquatic, but it's nowhere to be found in the finished product.

Fockers dishes out more torment for poor Gaylord

Few films can be classified as "nightmare comedies," but Jay Roach's Meet the Parents, released in 2000, certainly qualifies. It's hard to imagine a worse weekend than the one Gaylord Focker (Ben Stiller) endures while meeting Jack and Dina Byrnes (Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner), the parents of his fiancée, Pam (Teri Polo). He accidentally breaks the nose of his future sister-in-law, burns down a gazebo, breaks an urn filled with a family member's ashes, loses the beloved family cat, and brings home a substitute cat that wrecks his future father-in-law's den. And Jack didn't like Gaylord before the mishaps began. Yep, a weekend to remember.

In Meet the Fockers, the sequel, Roach and writers John Hamburg and James Herzfeld find the perfect balance of old and new, re-creating nightmarish moments of paralyzing embarrassment for poor Gaylord. Jack and Dina, along with their grandson, Little Jack, and the cat, Jinx, head to Coconut Grove, Fla., to meet Gaylord's parents, Bernie and Roz Focker (Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand). Not surprisingly, the parents of the soon-to-be-marrieds clash immediately. Jack is ultraconservative; Bernie, who gave up a successful law practice to be a stay-at-home dad, is not. "I thought it would be fun to talk about our first sexual experience" is Bernie's idea of a conversation icebreaker.

Roach and his writers lay the groundwork for explosive comedic situations, and they exploit it at every turn. The laughs are consistent, if a bit predictable. Even then, that doesn't spoil the fun, particularly during two scenes, one in which Gaylord reveals far too much before his family while under the influence of truth serum and another in which he's left to care for Little Jack.

Like most great comedies, Fockers lets us witness the pain and suffering of one man from a safe distance, giving us the opportunity to sympathize with him yet laugh at how cruel fate can be sometimes. Anyone can stick a knife into a poor buffoon, but Roach and company know just how to twist it, and that makes all the difference.

Also in theaters. . .

The Aviator [PG-13] Bio-pic of billionaire Howard Hughes, tracking his early career, his romances with Hollywood actresses, and growing power. Parkway Pointe

Darkness [PG-13] Teenager moves to an old country home with her family, only to find the gloomy place hides a horrifying secret. Parkway Pointe

Fat Albert [PG] Girl is amazed when cartoon characters, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, step out of her TV and into her world. So are we. Hey, hey, hey. Parkway Pointe, ShowPlace East

The Phantom of the Opera [PG-13] Andrew Lloyd Webber's version of the story of a disfigured musical genius who hides in the Paris Opera House. Parkway Pointe

The Polar Express [G] Based on the popular children's book, a story of a boy who is whisked by train to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. Parkway Pointe, ShowPlace East

Sideways [R] A failed writer/divorcé and his best friend, a faded actor, take a weeklong trip through California wine country, where they explore their failures and drink wine. Parkway Pointe