It's probably best to admit this up front: Wes Anderson's films can be considered something of an acquired taste.
Not everyone digs on Anderson's deadpan fairy tales that view reality through crack'd mirrors; his critics often level charges of infatuation with minutiae, which, when considering The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou , is a fair accusation. Anderson fills his frame to overflowing, packing in as much detail as possible; at times, he functions less as a director and more as a visual novelist.
Bill Murray, returning to work with Anderson a third time after 1998's Rushmore and 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums, easily steps into the role of Steve Zissou, a burnt-out, washed-up oceanographer reeling from the death of his right-hand man, Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel, another Anderson vet) at the hands of a mysterious sea creature known as the "jaguar shark."
Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming) stock Zissou's vessel, the Belafonte, with an array of zany characters, such as Pele dos Santos (Seu Jorge of City of God), a Portuguese crew member who croons David Bowie songs in his native language; Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), a needy, insecure German who desperately craves Zissou's attention; and Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a man who may or may not be Steve's son.
Of course, even the most minor players in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (such as Bud Cort's Bill Ubell) register clearly; Anderson has only refined his ability to deftly switch between narrative threads since the early days of Bottle Rocket. Fiercely literary flourishes such as the ornate character names (Oseary Drakoulias, Alistair Hennessey, Jane Winslett-Richardson, etc.) only enhance Anderson's reputation as that of a high-minded cinematic aesthete.
It's also worth mentioning that traces of Italian neo-realism (the film was shot in and around Rome and Cinecitta) filter through The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou; Anderson freely admitted to The New York Times around the film's release that he was going through his own "Italian phase." This marriage of the rough-hewn style of observation popularized by Fellini, de Sica and Antonioni with Anderson's quirky peculiarities makes for an intoxicating, if unconventional, brew.
Murray's portrayal of the irascible bastard Steve Zissou is but one more sterling performance on his resume since the second wind of Rushmore; working with Anderson, who seems to understand the barely contained vitriol that fuels the comic's sublimely timed reactions, Murray is able to further cement himself as a performer equally gifted at comedy or drama.
The rest of Anderson's assembled players (a group who, as with other auteurs on the rise in Hollywood, returns again and again to work with the director) are all up to the task of filling the space in front of Mark Friedberg's spot-on production design; of particular note are Cate Blanchett as the intrepid writer Jane Winslett-Richardson and Wilson as the mysterious Plimpton.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is every bit as odd and intriguing as its unwieldy title would suggest; Wes Anderson has created another immersive world teeming with wit, warmth and weirdness. It's one of 2004's great films and unimpeachable entertainment.
Criterion Collection spine number 300 is presented in a luminous 2.35:1 hi-def anamorphic widescreen transfer that pops off the screen, sharp and vivid. Anderson utilizes every inch of space onscreen and there's nary a defect to distract from the images teeming with life - another stellar Criterion transfer and one that does ample justice to Robert Yeoman's evocative cinematography.
Those odd Portuguese renditions of "Life on Mars?" and "Space Oddity" come through loud and clear thanks to the Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 tracks included here - DTS gains a slight edge in terms of clarity and immersion but the action scenes show off just as much as the more subdued dialogue scenes. Dolby 2.0 stereo is also available; much like the visuals, Criterion's audio work is superb.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is available in two editions - one being a single disc edition which features a commentary track from Anderson and Baumbach, recorded at the New York City bar (nay, the very table) where the two men wrote the film, 10 deleted scenes (which can be played together or separately) that run for an aggregate of four and a half minutes, the film's theatrical trailer (in anamorphic widescreen) and the featurette titled "Starz on the Set," which runs 14 minutes, 30 seconds and features interviews with the cast and crew. Both feature Eric Anderson's peculiarly striking artwork on the animated menus.
The two-disc Criterion Collection edition boasts all of the aforementioned extras and a second disc of supplements which contains the following: "Creating a Scene" (four minutes, forty seconds), a full-screen, on-set look at Anderson working through a scene with the cast; "This Is An Adventure" (51 minutes, 23 seconds), a full-screen documentary directed by Albert Maysles, Antonio Ferrera and Matthew Prinzing that details filming in Italy; "An Intern's Journal" (15 minutes, 22 seconds), a behind-the-scenes documentary shot and edited by real-life Anderson intern Matthew Gray Gubler, who also plays Intern Number One in the film; 10 complete video performances (40 minutes) of Brazilian recording artist and actor Seu Jorge performing the various Bowie songs, some of which appear in the finished film; a clip from Italian film talk show "Mondo Monda" (16 minutes, 23 seconds) which features host Antonio Monda (who has a cameo in the film) interviewing Anderson and Baumbach - sans subtitles - and a 19-minute, anamorphic interview with composer Mark Mothersbaugh.
In addition, there are three featurettes detailing specific characters - Wilson's Ned Plimpton (two minutes, 57 seconds); Blanchett's Jane Winslett-Richardson (three minutes, 28 seconds) and Cassel's Esteban du Plantier (seven minutes, nine seconds). Also, "The Look Aquatic" (five minutes, 30 seconds) details production designer Mark Friedberg's work on the film and "Aquatic Life" (seven minutes, 54 seconds) covers Henry Selick's stop-motion contributions to the undersea life in the film. A gallery of stills, the four-and-a-half minute "Costumes" covers the zany wardrobe work of Milena Canonero and included as an insert is a fold-out illustrated cutaway of Zissou's ship The Belafonte, drawn by Eric Anderson. The reverse of the insert boasts an interview with Wes and Eric Anderson, conducted by the Criterion Collection in early 2005.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou will delight Anderson devotees (although when released, it drew criticism for being overly precious and somewhat repetitious within the director's oeuvre) and likely confound those who are drawn to the packaging claims of a "hilarious high seas comedy." Nevertheless, the depth and breadth of the assembled Criterion extras, along with a stellar audio/visual presentation make this a lock for DVD Talk Collectors Series status.
Portions of this review were reprinted from the Oklahoma Gazette.