Some filmmakers just kind of boldly, defiantly go their own way. They make the films they want to make, the way they want to make them, regardless of Hollywood’s usual need for “high concepts” and obvious commercial blockbusters. Wes Anderson is one of those filmmakers. His movies - Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums - go along their own quirky way, assuming the audience is smart and/or hip enough to get it. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is Anderson’s latest, and it shares the offbeat style of its predecessors. It’s possible that Anderson is an acquired taste since his style is so much different than what we’re normally exposed to week in and week out at the movies. Personally, I like the inventiveness he brings to each project – a sense of not really knowing what to expect from one minute to the next.
In The Life Aquatic, Bill Murray plays Steve Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau-type underwater explorer/documentarian. Zissou is experiencing something of a personal crisis. The relationship with his wife Eleanor (Angelica Houston) is strained; his recent films are considered to be pale imitations of his earlier ones; and his longtime colleague Esteban (Seymour Cassel) was eaten by an enormous “jaguar shark” during a recent production. Participating in a Q&A session after a film festival screening of his most recent work, Zissou vows that his next project will be finding the jaguar shark and killing it in revenge. He then reunites the members of Team Zissou, including Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), and heads out on his ship, the Belafonte.
A few new people are aboard for the trip, including Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), a reporter doing a story on Zissou, and Bill Ubell (Bud Cort), a completion bond worker assigned to monitor the filming of this new adventure. Another newcomer is Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), who showed up mysteriously at the film festival and announced that he may be Zissou’s son. Then again, he may not. Although the question of paternity is questionable at best, Zissou takes unexpected joy in playing papa to this guy. It seems to energize him, give him new purpose. Such feelings come in handy as the Belafonte encounters dangerous pirates and, eventually, the dreaded jaguar shark.
What Wes Anderson’s critics claim is that his movies are glossy and overtly quirky but without any real emotional value. (The same claim is often made of the Coen Brothers.) I’ve never quite bought into that argument. I think there’s a strong sentimental quality to all of Anderson’s projects; he just approaches emotion from a left-of-center perspective. The director seems to be interested in how people connect despite the personal quirks and eccentricities that often make connection challenging. Consider Gene Hackman’s character in The Royal Tenenbaums who wanted to form a bond with his grandchildren but only knew how to teach them bad manners.
With The Life Aquatic, Anderson is looking at revitalization. Steve Zissou was previously at the top of his game but recently has been just coasting. When we first meet him, the joy in his life is essentially gone; everything is falling to pieces in front of him. Once armed with a genuine purpose and supported by the son he never knew he had, Zissou learns to make a go at life again. He ends up making some surprising connections to other people and also discovers an enthusiasm for his work that had disappeared. Anderson’s message seems to be that you never really know where or how inspiration will strike. You might not even be aware that it has.
Bill Murray does something interesting with the role: he underplays. In his eyes, Steve Zissou is almost comatose to the world. Murray gives you the impression that things never would have gotten so bad had the character not fallen asleep (figuratively) somewhere along the way. The cast of the TV show “Seinfeld” always talked about the unwritten rule of their show, which was that nobody learns any obvious lessons at the end. That’s similar to the approach taken here. Yes, Zissou wakes up from his catatonic lifestyle, but he also barely seems to notice. There’s no epiphany, no eureka moment. He simply course-corrects. This low-key approach really interested me because it doesn’t call attention to itself. It would conceivably be possible to sit through this entire movie and never realize that it has something to say or something we can learn from the character.
Along the way, there are a lot of the aforementioned quirks. Some of them work, such as the fantastical sea creatures Team Zissou encounters (all done with stop-motion animation by Henry Selick, who directed The Nightmare Before Christmas). I also liked the offbeat personalities of some characters, particularly Klaus Daimler, who appears tough on the surface but underneath suffers from a raging inferiority complex. Other quirks don’t work quite as well. For instance, Zissou’s rival, Alistair Hennessy (Jeff Goldblum), is intended to be a foil – a guy who seems to be everything Zissou is not. However, the screenplay never does enough with the character to make his presence pay off. And although Angelica Huston is always a welcome presence, her character (allegedly the brains behind Team Zissou) seems cold and distant for no real reason. She’s an ice queen without a genesis. And why does one of the female crew members walk around stark naked considering that no one ever hits on her?
Is The Life Aquatic as funny as Rushmore? No. Is it as beautifully bizarre as The Royal Tenenbaums? No. But I liked it anyway. Say what you will about the film but it’s not cookie cutter. It finds its own rhythm to march to. Some things made me laugh, others made me think, and still others made me scratch my head. It surprised me every few minutes. The Life Aquatic is not for every taste, but it’s certainly for mine.
( out of four)
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is rated R for language, some drug use, violence and partial nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.
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