A film review by Craig J. Koban


2004, R, 118 mins.

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

Directed by Wes Anderson / Written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach

Wes Anderson has always been a crazy, tongue-in-cheek idealist as a filmmaker, and his newest entry into the weird and farcical is oddly titled THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU.  This comedy is a decidedly different change of pace in terms of subject matter, but Anderson’s trademark visual inventiveness and clever and sharp wit is still here, albeit with a bit more inconsistency.  Yes, Anderson’s droll, deadpan humor is not everyone’s cup of tea, and even I have to confess to being only lukewarm to his films upon the first viewings.  I still, to this day, feel that his first much-praised film – BOTTLE ROCKET – is a convoluted and unfocused mess. His next film – RUSHMORE – was a film that I did not like at first because I felt no sympathy for its teenage prodigy as he was trying to woe an older woman of his dreams.  That film grew on me as I began to recognize the subtlety to Anderson’s comic timing as a director.  This was clearly evident in his great ROYAL TENNENBAUMS, a film that was smart in balancing humor with drama.   

THE LIFE AQUATIC is even more satiric, which kind of pokes fun at the earnestness and gravity of sea-faring personalities.  If Jacque Cousteau was a pot smoker who carried a .45 automatic pistol and had a squad of unpaid interns, then he would most certainly be Steve Zissou.  Bill Murray plays Zissou to pokerfaced perfection and sort of single-handedly defines the tone of the rest of the film.  Murray is the prime embodiment of the level and tone of humor that Anderson has always strived for.  He is not of the loud, boisterous, or sick and disgusting type of comedy that relishes in unpleasantries (which, unfortunately, seems to be the calling card of far too many recent screen comedies).  Instead, Anderson always goes for sly, understated laughs that border on absurdity and kind of take it to another plane of existence.  Oftentimes, you are left laughing uproariously and then kind of scratching your head in puzzlement.  These feelings are kind of indicative through much of the film, especially when Anderson uses a folk singer to perform David Bowie songs throughout it in Portuguese.  Interesting and offbeat?  No doubt. 

Well, Steve Zissou is not your typical oceanographer with a zest for all things aquatic.  The one interesting facet about his character is that he feels more self-important as an auteur.    Much like Cousteau, Mr. Zissou is an internationally renowned documentary filmmaker who has garnered serious acclaim for his films of undersea exploration and life.  He has become such an iconic figure that he has fan clubs, corporate logos, as well as his own trademark look (red hat and speedos).  The problem with Zissou is that, well, he’s just not a really great filmmaker and he's so self-absorbed in his own fame and image that he is incapable of acknowledging the fact that his latest string of films are uneventful flops.   

The beginning of the film is kind of sad in the sense that it shows the premiere of Zissou’s latest entry, which judging by the audience reaction, is such an unmitigated bore that staring at a blank screen for two hours might have been more pleasurable.  With his popularity diminishing and weak prospects in sight, Zissou needs a hit and one desperately.  Striving to avoid being labeled a has-been for the rest of his days, he decides on one last-ditch attempt at reclaiming fame and prestige.  Yes, Zissou embarks on one last quest.  On a recent dive disaster strikes when his best friend is attacked, bitten, and subsequently eaten by a “tiger shark”.  Faster than you can say “Captain Ahab”, Zissou makes it his daring last mission in life to find the shark, or as he dryly puts it, “I'm going to find it and I'm going to destroy it. Possibly with dynamite.”  When a reporter asks him why he would kill a rare species, Zissou replies sardonically, “revenge.”  So, Zissou prepares his vast, but rundown ship - The Belafonte - with his eclectic crew and several “unpaid interns.”  Nothing seems to stop Zissou in his vision for revenge, even when one of his crew tells him that his “short cut” leads to unprotected waters.  He then grabs the map out of her hands and states, “Your way's four inches, mine is an inch and a half. Do you want to pay for the extra gas?” 

However, before he really sets sail, Zissou is beset with a few curveballs that are thrown his way.  It appears that he has fathered a child that he did know about, but ignored for most of his life.  The child, now all grown up, is Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson).  They have the usual exchange between two people who have just discovered their relationship with one another (Steve Zissou: You're supposed to be my son, right?  Ned Plimpton: I don't know. But I did want meet you, just in case).  The next problem that presents itself is in the form of a beautiful, but pregnant, journalist named Jane Winslett Richardson, played by Cate Blanchett.  Zissou is instantly smitten with the younger journalist, despite the fact that she asks probing questions that reveal his has-been status as a filmmaker.  When Ned soon develops obvious feelings for her as well, Steve wisely steps in and tells the young lad, “You really think you can hit the sauce with a bun in the oven?” 

The crew of The Belafonte is a broad mixture, to say the least.  There is Zissou’s ex-wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), her ex-husband Alistair (Jeff Goldblum), an eager-to-please German Klaus (the hilarious Willem Dafoe), the pesky producer of the films Oseary (Michael Gambon), and the financial stooge Bill (Bud Cort).  Complications soon arise by a series of personal gripes with many of the respective crewmembers with one another.  Klaus has it in for the young Ned, not to mention that he has some personal issues with acceptance from Zissou (when Zissou sets out to create a team during one crucial mission, Klaus whines, “Thanks. Thanks a lot for not picking me”).  Also, Ned himself is tirelessly trying to gain the acceptance of his father, which is further complicated by both his father’s and his feelings about Jane.  Meanwhile, one crewmember sings David Bowie’s greatest hits in Portuguese and Filipino pirates board the vessel and take a man hostage, which cause Zissou, in the film’s most hilarious moment, to grab his Glock pistol and kick some pirate butt. 

There is a lot to admire in this screen odyssey into the surreal and bizarre.  The set design by Anderson and company is kind of ingenious, especially when it comes to detailing the entire layout of The Belafonte as a whole.  In one virtuoso camera setup, Anderson gives the audience a guided tour through the ship in one shot.  Basically, he accomplished this by building an entire large scale set and then cut away the entire front wall to reveal all of the separate rooms like some sort of gigantic cross-section.  The boat itself is a wonderfully wacky invention, containing all types of out-dated scientific equipment, not to mention a spa.  The other aspect that is worth mentioning is Anderson interesting choice when it comes to filming the underwater life itself.  Keeping with the film’s tone of not being overly realistic, Anderson paints the underwater scenes with lush, vibrant colors and a series of equally bright, if not slightly cartoony and silly looking, creatures that kind of border on a hyper-reality.  When the crew finally comes across the shark itself, its sort of hauntingly beautiful in its own right.  Visually, THE LIFE AQUATIC is a joyous film. 

The film also benefits from some great, trademark Anderson laughs.  The dialogue itself gets chuckles that range from enormously silly to clever and crafty.  When one character asks if the team will be safe in their submersible, which is only supposed to have six people in it and clearly has more, Zissou retorts coldly, “probably not.”  I also like one funny exchange between Jane and Zissou (Jane: You're too old for me, Steve. Steve Zissou: Yeah, well, you're pregnant).  Wilson and Murray also effectively play off one another in exchanges that are well timed (Steve Zissou: I dunno, I think that bull-dyke reporter is gonna burn us. Ned Plimpton: I don't think she's a lesbian, dad. She's pregnant).  The scene where Zissou cleans out the Filipino pirate trash is a wonderfully hilarious send-up of bad action movie clichés.  There is not one convincing, believable three-dimensional character in THE LIFE AQUATIC, but that is kind of the point.  This is not a film about life, more or less a send-up of lives. 

THE LIFE AQUATIC is not a perfect film comedy.  The first kink in its armor is the film's sluggish pace (only Murray’s spirited, yet melancholy, performance, the witty banter, and the visual sights keep this film from being a pretentious bore).  Not only that, but there is no real investment in the screenplay in terms of fully developing the father/son relationship.  And as for the love triangle, even that kind of ends abruptly and flat.  This is a film comedy that demands a bit too much patience from its audience, and at nearly two hours a film that is seemingly this light needed to be a bit more expeditious and less leisurely.  Quirkiness and peculiarities can only take a comedy so far before one grows tired of it. 

However, I still thoroughly enjoyed the adventures of Steve Zissou.  Okay, he may not be everyone’s idea of a conventional leading man figure that braves the elements (he’s overweight, grungy, smokes and drinks too much, and kind of is a soft-spoken and depressing man), but he still is a spirited chap that will do anything to get to that shark that “ate his best friend.”  THE LIFE AQUATIC may be a bit unfocused and inconsistent with what it’s trying to accomplish, but it still has enough genuine laughs, sarcastic performances, and great visuals to recommend.  Notwithstanding the fact that with the great comic presence of Bill Murray confidently steering the boat, there is very little room for the film to sink down to murky waters.  This is an oddball farce that embraces eccentricities, and although it’s not Anderson’s best screen outing, THE LIFE AQUATIC still IS a small gem of minimalist slapstick antics.  It may not have the snap and energy of the last few Anderson comedies, but it still has a great sense of whimsy. 

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