Film Reviews

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU

By • Dec 25th, 2004 •

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Buena Vista Pictures / Touchstone Pictures presents an American Empirical picture
MPAA rating R / Running time — 119 minutes

QUOTE: Smug and slow moving. Who cares about Steve Zissou? For Anderson, it was all about the boat.

Here is what Glenn Kenny said in a capsule review of “Life Aquatic” (Premiere magazine, Dec. 2004/January 2005): “There are those who hold that Anderson is some kind of snooty postmodern ironist; I find his pictures full of actual emotion, albeit emotion modulated by a wry sometimes rueful whimsy. (I can’t imagine how anyone could see “Rushmore’s” fadeout, to the strains of Faces’ “Ooh LaLa,” as anywhere near snarky.) This picture, more than anything Anderson’s done, privileges imaginative exuberance over ham-fisted emotional “impact”; I savored every frame and gorged on every sound (being a fan of ‘70s Bowie helps).”

Well, there you have it! I have no frame of reference for “a wry sometimes rueful whimsy” or “snooty postmodern ironist.” If you do and can, like Kenny, compare “Rushmore” to “Rome, Open City,” please let me know. My personal email address is below.

Reading Kenny’s capsule take on “Life Aquatic” in Premiere made me want to hate the film without even seeing it. But I threw away my Kenny-induced prejudice after Touchstone Pictures sent me a Life Aquatic red cap, sky blue Speedo, and official Team Zissou I.D. card (with place for photo). I like Bill Murray ever since he finally, last year, grew tired of all the honors Sofia Coppola got for her body of work (THE VIRGIN SUICIDES and LOST IN TRANSLATION) and addressed it publicly. But, what was Esquire magazine’s The Genius Issue thinking when it put on its December 2005 Bill Murray cover, “Will Somebody Please Give This Man An Oscar?”

Are Oscars gifts or awards?

In Wes Anderson’s THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS the patriarch is ruthlessly self-centered yet so glib and fascinating to Anderson that despite Royal Tenenbaum’s self-loathing flaws, his quirky family are satellites revolving around him – the lynchpin of the drama torturing their lives. Anderson’s “I Was Neglected By My Father” obsession continues. This time the lynchpin is 52-year old “cold-as-a-fish” oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray). He has a rich indulgent wife, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) and a devoted group of researchers. Zissou documents every moment of his life and he is very involved in filmmaking. He might be a self-centered scientist, but he knows the right camera lens and how to match shots. Anything that might be emotionally interesting for his documentary must be filmed or re-enacted. He knows all about cutaways and close-ups.

Team Zissou consists primarily of Klaus (Willem Dafoe, the only funny character in the movie), a jealous, insecure German engineer; Pele dos Santos (Seu Jorge) a guitar-playing crew member who sings David Bowie songs in Portuguese; an Indian cameraman, assorted staff, and a troupe of unpaid interns. Suddenly a pregnant British journalist, Jane Winslett-Richardson (pregnant Cate Blanchett, adopting a weird accent. Doesn’t her husband ever work?), turns up to do, as Zissou insists, a puff cover story on Zissou. Tennessee co-pilot Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) believes he is Zissou’s long-lost son. Zissou invites him to join Team Zissou since a father-son sub-plot will work well in the making of Part Two of his documentary.

In Part One, Zissou’s lover – I mean, friend – Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel) is eaten alive by a strange sea creature. Zissou vows to find the “Jaguar Shark” and kill him, revenging his friend’s death. Along for the adventure aboard Zissou’s converted World War II ship, The Belafonte, is a bond company representative, Bill Ubell (Bud Cort), who Zissou keeps mocking. Zissou decides he might be interested in the journalist even though he is too old for her and she favors his “son.” Eleanor doesn’t want to kill the shark so she deserts him for the island retreat of her possibly bi-sexual ex-husband, Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), a rich oceanographer with a Nazi-youth staff.

This comedy then turns ugly but, respecting those who complain I give away too much plot, didn’t make any sense to me. Unless, of course, Anderson is still harboring some unresolved family conflicts and this was his way of punishing Daddy. I struggled to find a satisfactory explanation for the fate of Ned.

Anderson loves his cutaway ship set and it is the star of THE LIFE AQUATIC’S $50 Million budget. Anderson assembled his cast for an extravagant holiday in picturesque locations but neglected to direct his actors. Everyone is self-directing. Murray does awkward, stale line-readings; Blanchett has an affected accent (I hope is not her own); Wilson does a bad Southern accent; Dafoe pulls out a lousy German accent; and that constant interruption to listen to Bowie’s songs in Portuguese (it was nicely done in THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY but not here), served no cute purpose.

I did love the fabulous brightly colored underwater scenes that Anderson lavished attention on. But, oh my God, the ending shot was something a first-year film student would avoid at all costs: When Zissou and his clan see the phantom sea creature, each person places a hand on Zissou’s shoulder. Why? Did Zissou have an epiphany? Did he see a piece of Esteban hanging out of the shark’s mouth and needed the reassuring touch of each member of Team Zissou? Did, as Zissou opines, the shark recognize him?


Credits:
Director: Wes Anderson
Screenwriters: Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach
Producers: Wes Anderson, Barry Mendel, Scott Rudin
Executive producer: Rudd Simmons
Director of photography: Robert Yeoman
Production designer: Mark Friedberg
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh
Co-producer: Enzo Sisti
Costume designer: Milena Canonero
Editor: David Moritz

Cast:
Steve Zissou: Bill Murray
Ned Plimpton: Owen Wilson
Jane Winslett-Richardson: Cate Blanchett
Eleanor Zissou: Anjelica Huston
Klaus Daimler: Willem Dafoe
Alistair Hennessey: Jeff Goldblum
Oseary Drakoulias: Michael Gambon
Bill Ubell: Bud Cort
Pele dos Santos: Seu Jorge
Esteban du Plantier: Seymour Cassel

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