The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
Director : Wes Anderson
Screenplay : Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Bill Murray (Steve Zissou), Owen Wilson (Ned Plimpton), Cate Blanchett (Jane Winslett-Richardson), Anjelica Huston (Eleanor Zissou), Willem Dafoe (Klaus Daimler), Jeff Goldblum (Alistair Hennessey), Michael Gambon (Oseary Drakoulias), Noah Taylor (Vladimir Wolodarsky), Bud Cort (Bill Ubell), Seu Jorge (Pelé dos Santos), Robyn Cohen (Anne-Marie Sakowitz), Waris Ahluwalia (Vikram Ray)
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is Wes Anderson’s latest stagy tragicomedy about a failed father figure. It is right in line with his last two films, 1998’s Rushmore and 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums, in that it creates a highly detailed, self-consciously fabricated, yet oddly recognizable universe for its peculiar story of familial dysfunction to unfold. And, like those two earlier films, The Life Aquatic’s dysfunction is about the disconnect between a father and son, although this time the family is motley crew of oceanographers and filmmakers.
Bill Murray stars as the eponymous Steve Zissou, a world-famed explorer-documentarian ala Jacques Cousteau whose self-propagated cultural cache is hitting a new low. He’s having a hard time getting financiers interested in his films, which are amusingly bad and dated circa the late 1950s even though the film ostensibly takes place in the present day. His latest exploration has a personal agenda: He wants to hunt down and kill a “jaguar shark” that ate his best friend, an incident depicted in his most recent documentary. On top of that, Zissou’s marriage to Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), the real “brains” of the outfit, is falling apart, and he recently found out that a Kentucky-drawlin’ airline pilot named Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) may be his son.
The “are they or are they not father and son?” relationship between Steve and Ned is the heart of the story, and had there been more meat to it, The Life Aquatic would have been a better film. There is no denying that Wes Anderson is one of the most visually and aurally clever filmmakers working today; like his previous films, The Life Aquatic couldn’t have come from anyone but him. His eye for detail, both genuine and ironic, and the touch he has in selecting offbeat pop music for just the right moments, is virtually unrivaled (here, he uses almost all David Bowie songs, some of which are strummed on a guitar and translated into sometimes nonsensical Portuguese by Seu Jorge, who plays one of Zissou’s crew members). The Belafonte, Zissou’s beloved, but decrepit research vessel, which is frequently shown in cross-section like a giant model, affords Anderson a perfect stage with its elaborate sauna, editing room, library, kitchen, and laboratory, which is outfitted with wonderfully outdated equipment. And, just to make sure we’re fully in on the joke, the film only uses fantastical aquatic creatures (designed by The Nightmare Before Christmas’ Henry Selick) that are clearly meant to look animated.
However, all of Anderson’s offbeat cinematic ingenuity can’t disguise the fact (or is maybe the reason) that The Life Aquatic just doesn’t have much going for it emotionally. Both Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums amounted to more than just clever visual wit because their stories hummed. We cared about the surrogate father-son breakdown between prep school underachiever Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) and the melancholy Herman Blume (Bill Murray) in Rushmore, and there was genuine pathos in the comedy surrounding the strained division between Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum and his brood of gifted misfits. In The Life Aquatic, however, there never seems to be much at stake between Zissou and Ned.
Part of the problem may be the characterization of Zissou himself, a self-described showboat and prick. If he were more of those things, he might have been more interesting in a Royal Tenenbaum kind of way, but unfortunately he is so melancholy and downtrodden that he frequently drags the film down with him. Part of the story’s emotional tug should come from the image of a once-great man on the hardest slope of his decline, but we don’t get much sense of how great things used to be, thus Zissou doesn’t have a real sense of tragedy about him. He’s so down on his luck from the get-go that there isn’t even any sense of competition between him and Ned for the affection of Jane (a wonderful Cate Blanchett), the beautiful and six-months-pregnant British reporter onboard doing a cover story about Zissou.
Bill Murray landed perfectly in the crossroads of depression and comedy in Sophia Coppola’s exquisite Lost in Translation (2003), and he is clearly trying to mine the same territory again. However, the screenplay by Anderson and Noah Baumbach doesn’t find a way to truly redeem his apathy. His emotional chemistry with Ned always feels forced, thus his resurrection has to come via violence, in this case protecting the Belafonte from marauding pirates and rescuing “the bond company stooge” (Bud Cort) from their capture.
Anderson stages the violent confrontations with a maximum of ironic detachment, parodying the movie-only scenario of being shot at from multiple directions and never once getting so much as nicked. Irony of course, is Anderson’s primary language, but it doesn’t work as well when he doesn’t leaven it with some gravitas. The Life Aquatic doesn’t quite sink, but it never manages to do much better than keeping its head above water.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Touchstone Pictures