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"Stay away from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. It's Wes Anderson's worst movie. It isn't funny. Nobody likes it."
I followed this bad advice for roughly ten years, based also on the fact that I wasn't a huge fan of Wes Anderson. Membership in his fan club seems to require an inordinate interest in an exclusive, elitist club of spoiled characters that get to wander the world on someone else's dime, selfishly annoying people from their prep school days forward. Anderson's quirky Bottle Rocket was a lark because its silly characters were so fresh; its brand of slightly smug humor among the terminally self-obsessed seemed a really interesting concoction. Further movies seem to confirm that Anderson wasn't joking, however, and instead expected us to take seriously the problems (and depredations) of his elitist slackers. The entire universe seems to love The Royal Tenenbaums, when I'm afraid that I was blinded to Anderson's considerable directing talent by on overwhelming desire to see all of his characters taken to the nearest wall and shot. By contrast, the animated movie with George Clooney playing a fox is a happy charmer. An exotic context helps The Darjeerling Limited but not enough; by the end of the show we are expected to view the drowning of a little kid as a useful 'growth experience' for yet another callow Anderson tourist.
That then is my pitiful excuse for avoiding Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou for so long a time. As it turns out, I found this picture a delight. The characters aren't purebred leeches, not even Bill Murray's slightly depressed Jacques Cousteau wannabe, Steve Zissou. Instead of drifting through swanky hotels, Anderson's crew of misfits has an actual mission to perform, even if it is linked to a belief that a series of flaky nature films amounts to a meaningful life's work.
Essentially, Anderson's double-tiered approach to comedy (you take the sentimentality seriously, and we'll undercut your concern) works because the fraud in this case is Zissou's moviemaking lifestyle: no matter how dreadful the project, people following the lead of a charismatic director or producer will happily dedicate themselves to being part of a vital creative team. Zissou himself believes in the sanctity of his cinematic calling, no matter how inept his efforts. He sees no contradiction in the fact that he simultaneously acknowledges that his claim to greatness is B.S.: Zissou's "The Life Aquatic" movies are masterpieces because people believe they are. In the film's key scene, the crew gathers to watch a pitiful clip from a particularly insulting Zissou 'real life' nature documentary. "Those were the good old days", someone says.
At a fancy Italian film festival, oceanographer-filmmaker Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is not pleased when his latest offering "The Jaguar Shark: Part One" fails to excite the audience, despite ending with the cliffhanger death of Esteban (Seymour Cassel), Steve's closest friend and partner. Financing for Part Two looks shaky, as neither Steve's wealthy, aloof wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) nor his producer Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon) is particularly bullish on the chances of attracting investors. Steve hates his fabulously successful competitor Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), who consistently wins all the available grant money. Worse, he's Eleanor's ex-husband, and she seems to prefer his company to that of Steve's. Esteban was killed by a huge, unknown creature Steve has provisionally called a 'Jaguar Shark', which Hennessey scoffs at in public. Vowing to kill the monster fish, Steve sets sail in his floating oceanography lab Belafonte, with his loyal (if eccentric) crew. Airline pilot Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) shows up and announces that he may be Steve's son. Rather than find out for sure the needy Steve starts treating Ned as an emotional replacement for the lost Esteban. This upsets chief crewmember Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), who expresses his resentment by pouting. Finally, the deal Drakoulias has worked out requires that Steve bring along two outsiders, "insurance company stooge" Bill Ubell (Bud Cort) and independent reporter Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett). Piqued that Blanchett seems to prefer the romantic advances of Ned, Steve wonders if Jane's article will be a slam exposing him as a fraud. The search for the Jaguar shark takes the Belafonte into 'unprotected waters' and into the clutches of a real terror of the sea lanes: Philippine pirates!
The Life Aquatic is a goofy spinoff of the world of Jacques Cousteau. Although today's kids probably never heard of the French oceanographer & filmmaker, in the 1950s and '60s we would grab up new issues of National Geographic to see the color photos of Cousteau's new adventures. His research ship Calypso carried a bright yellow mini-submarine in the shape of a flying saucer. From a public relations point of view, Jacques Cousteau was a modern Captain Nemo.
Anderson and his writing partner Noah Baumbach concoct a fanciful adventure that hangs together by virtue of a serial-like plot and a smiling awareness of its own charming triviality. At least half of the movie is a witty fantasy, with all of the sea life on view presented via stop motion animation. Bill Murray's Steve Zissou rattles off the names of ridiculous non-existent sea creatures as if they were second nature to him, but that's an illusion for his cameras. Both his bored wife Eleanor and the critical new reporter can tell that he often doesn't know what he's talking about. Murray might be playing Zissou as a more jaded Dr. Peter Venkman from Ghostbusters, after thirty years' worth of personal disappointments. Steve has pretty much lost the spark of real science or exploration. All that seems to matter to him is keeping the Zissou "man of adventure" image afloat, and in this case, vindicating his claim of a monstrous never-before-seen thing he calls a Jaguar Shark. When asked by an ecologically minded audience why he wants to kill the obviously rare creature, Steve answers, "Revenge."
The Life Aquatic is stacked to the gills with entertaining supporting characters that seem to be in on the joke yet play the story completely straight. The Belafonte's red-capped crew consists of lost souls that simply wandered into their jobs. Cate Blanchett's pregnant and frustrated writer Jane must fend off Steve's rude advances. That's bad Judgment on his part, considering that Jane's assignment is to profile Zissou's credibility as a scientist. Idealistic former childhood 'Zissou Club' member Ned finds that he shares with Steve the desire to heal their family. He's a little disappointed when his maybe-father immediately tries to re-shape and re-name him to better fit in with the Zissou public image. Using a thick German accent, Willem Dafoe's sweet, almost child-like Klaus can't control his jealousy at seeing Ned usurp his place as Steve's unofficial 'son'. It's a thrill, frankly, to see Dafoe playing something other than a murderous slimeball.
Steve not only cannot keep a personal promise, he's an outright crook. Company stooge Bill Ubell is shocked to see Zissou break into one of Alastair Hennessey's remote labs, and steal everything in sight. But Hennessey's obnoxious insults and ruthless business manner (in addition to his interest in Eleanor) put us firmly on Steve Zissou's side. More near-nonsensical adventures follow when the Belafonte steers into "unprotected waters" and becomes engaged in an amusing low-tension battle with pirates. Steve's impossible mission force looks like a group of wet-suited frogs, running across a beach to assault the ruins of an abandoned luxury hotel. When the group finally closes in on the Jaguar Shark, Steve has the documentation to put an impressive, moving "Part 2" onto the festival screen back in Italay. 1
Designed and filmed by a largely Italian crew, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou makes excellent use of its adventure hardware, which on the big screen come off like a collection of toys. The Belafonte is outfitted with a helicopter, a mini-sub, a balloon, and a forward observation pod. Anderson even constructs a giant breakaway set to allow Murray's Zissou to conduct a guided tour. The Italian locations are convincingly fresh, even though we hardly have a clue as to where we are -- all the place names are foolish-sounding inventions. Underwater scenes take place in multi-colored grottoes that look like design improvements on the plastic fakery in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. But even with its rampant artificiality, The Life Aquatic cost a pretty penny -- Zissou's research ship is no CGI phony.
The Life Aquatic is a charming picture that takes an amusing light attitude about itself, and with no overriding Anderson issues. Even though the action plays out among some fabulously wealthy international types, their attitudes don't grate -- they're all fairly charming, including the often annoying Owen Wilson, and Jeff Goldblum's snotty character. The spectacle of Goldblum's Hennessey running and fighting despite being shot through the chest, is typical of ridiculous events that fit right in with Anderson's whimsical vibe. It's not easy sustaining this kind of fantasy. Aquatic pulls it off well enough that we go along with its sentimental touches. What could have been another judgmental satire instead creates a nice feeling about people. Zissou's crew wants to contribute to something creative. True, they're engaged in a silly, adolescent quest, but nobody's perfect.
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou pops off the screen with bright colors, especially those funny cutaways to fantastic, toy-like sea creatures. The costume designs and locations in Rome and various Italian ports and beaches look great in Robert Yeoman's widescreen images; the direction feels comedically loose even as the images are formally composed. The soundtrack makes use of David Bowie songs, sung in Portuguese by cast member Seu Jorge. Elsewhere we even get a little Ennio Morricone sampled in.
The extras will make any Wes Anderson fan happy. The director and his writer Noah Baumbach handle the audio commentary, while a lengthy making-of documentary breaks the movie's spell by proving that it isn't an improvised jaunt, but a huge undertaking with plentiful physical challenges filming on the open water. Other interviews abound, featuring Anderson, music composer Mark Mothersbaugh and other members of the cast and crew. A video journal is present, compiled by actor Matthew Gray Gubler, who plays one of Steve Zissou's "unpaid interns". And finally Seu Jorge performs more songs in Portuguese. I think I'll get deeper into the extras later. Web references point to a mass of special meanings behind most every invented place name, character name and fake animal name in the movie, and for the time being I'd rather just accept them at face value.
The insert folder transcribes a discussion of the film between Anderson and his brother, Eric Chase Anderson.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou Blu-ray
1. The moviemaking subtext in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou brings out the giggles in this ex-film editor. Steve Zissou has a mini-film studio right on his boat. Searching for suitable music to go with a scene in his movie provides some funny moments, with Bill Murray 'dancing' to the beat of an awful synth track that sounds like it came from a terrible stock music library. We then see an entire action scene scored with this same ten-cent music cue.
It reminded me 100% of experiences editing little movies of one kind or another, for producers who didn't know or care about things like music. I'd invariably be dispatched to a so-called Music Libary, where some guy would place the same 50 tapes in front of me no matter what kind of music I asked for. And no matter what I audited, it all sounded like the pitiful, lame music Zissou approves for his film. It all strikes me as being funny as hell. The difference between then & now is that today's young filmmakers try to do everything themselves. Many are brilliant at finding great music, and if they can't find what they want they know enough to throw something together with digital programs. More power to them.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.