THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU
Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, Noah Taylor
MPAA Rating: (for language, some drug use, violence and partial nudity)
Running Time: 1:58
Release Date: 12/10/04 (limited); 12/25/04 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik
Wes Anderson's unique sense of humor shows and works throughout The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but he is unable to come to a satisfying thematic conclusion. The movie is an overall hodgepodge of good ideas, but none of them takes center stage by the end. How Anderson wants us to connect to its central hero is lost amidst loaded images and statements that hint at some universal relevance but never achieve it. Part of the problem is Anderson's distance from his subjects, although that trait is typical of the writer/director and didn't affect the emotional impact of his previous two films Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. The difference here is that, while those films had a fundamental concept to expand upon, The Life Aquatic disenfranchises us with its detachment. Instead, Anderson fills the screen with characteristic quirkiness, hoping that will fill the void, relying on a three-legged dog, pirates, and a myriad of colorful, nonexistent specimens of sea life. These oddities only emphasize how significant the gap is between the movie's whimsy and its heart, and how there's no bridge to connect them.
Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is a famed oceanographer whose film series has started to find its detractors, many of whom believe the events depicted within them are staged. So when his latest documentary features his partner being eaten by a giant, unseen shark, there are skeptics amongst the premiere audience. Zissou tries to allay doubts by promising that for part two of his documentary he will hunt down the infamous jaguar shark that killed his partner and kill it. The scientific purpose of this expedition, he says, is revenge. After the premiere, he meets who he thinks is a regular fan at a party aboard Team Zissou's ship the Belfonte, but Kentucky airline co-pilot Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) is probably Zissou's son. Zissou takes Ned with him to Zissou Island, where the crew plans their next expedition. Zissou's personal and professional life are at their low points when Ned comes along. His wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), sometimes called the brains of Team Zissou, has left him, and he is no competition for grants against his opponent Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), who also happened to be married to Eleanor. So with stolen equipment from Operation Hennessey, a reporter named Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), and his newly discovered son, Zissou departs.
The crux of Anderson's humor is his dialogue—shorthanded language and pregnant pauses—and the portrayal of disillusioned people lost in the world. Those traits apply here, and he and co-writer Noah Baumbach add a level of surrealism to the proceedings. The jokes are dry and ironic, just like the characters. They are surrounded by a wondrous world full of imaginary creatures, but whatever amazement they may once have felt by these specimens has long since gone. Ironically, the death of Zissou's friend has given him a purpose for now, even if he is only going through the motions to accomplish it. His life, we sense, has been a routine of going through the motions. Add to that the idea that by chasing the shark he is apathetically pursuing death, and you get an idea of Zissou's character. He spends his life on these films, editing, narrating, and mixing them aboard the ship as they go; the equipment for post-production is more reliable than their oceanographic equipment and the ship itself. A running gag is the stilted nature of the Zissou film library, and in one scene, the team comes across a sunken ship, only to turn around and film their second approach to the site for "authenticity."
Little moments like this are the charm of the movie, and there are plenty of them. Where Anderson's folly lies is in making these little pieces encompass the big picture. I suspect the ultimate point here is the way in which Zissou has grown old and, in doing so, has lost the reason why he took the road he's on in the first place. The ship, a theatrical set piece that allows for a few skillful long, uncut takes, is full of melancholy, from the continually failing equipment to the undersea explorer with the name Jacqueline crossed out on it ("She didn't love me as much as I loved her.") The father-son relationship between Zissou and Ned is also explored, and in one cryptic line that is left undeveloped, Zissou explains why he never tried to contact his suspected son: "I hate fathers, and I never wanted to be one." Instead of running with these themes, Anderson spends a lot of time with scenes of pirates who hijack the ship and of the crew's attempt to rescue a hostage. The resolution of the father-son bond would seem to be an important point, but in a set of scenes following a tragic turn of events in which no one seems affected, there's no emotional weight.That the movie continues after all of this suggests that Ned is only a small part of the central idea, but Anderson is at a loss to express it, leaving it for us to put together. The only problem with that is we've been thrown so many pieces and so much of it seems unrelated, we're unsure where to start. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou might have worked better as an amusing diversion, but Anderson is clearly trying for more. He's tried too hard.
Copyright © 2005 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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