REVIEW: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou [2004]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 119 minutes | Release Date: December 25th, 2004 (USA)
Studio: Buena Vista Pictures
Director(s): Wes Anderson
Writer(s): Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach

“Esteban was eaten!”

It’s ambitious, hilarious, visually complex, and kind of … boring. I hoped that last adjective was merely the distant memory of a twenty-two year old expecting more out of Wes Anderson‘s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou when first released in theaters due to his infinite love for The Royal Tenenbaums two years previous. I thought perhaps that its failure—a relative term since it being my least favorite of the auteur’s films doesn’t mean it’s not still a three-star entry within a brilliantly quirky oeuvre—was courtesy of new screenwriting partner Noah Baumbach and the absence of regular collaborator Owen Wilson‘s voice. After a decade of waiting before a second glimpse and my believing Baumbach and Anderson’s other joint effort Fantastic Mr. Fox to be one of Wes’ greats, it seems Zissou is quite simply lacking.

There’s just too much going on for me to fully invest in any one theme or motivation. Is it a revenge flick pitting the titular Jacques Cousteau facsimile played by Bill Murray against the potentially fictional “Jaguar Shark” that ate his best friend Esteban (Seymour Cassel)? Is it a father/son drama thrusting two disparate personalities together via an unknown sense of responsibility and unfamiliar sense of love once Ned Plimpton (Wilson) arrives wielding the bombshell of who his mother was? Is the Cousteau homage only one example of inspiration as the whole film proves a hubristic quest a la Herman Melville‘s Moby Dick? Sometimes it’s one, sometimes another, but never does it feel like all three simultaneously. Anderson looks to do so much visually and comically that the plot becomes the background dressing—forgotten and less than important.

This fact makes it hard for me to truly care about any of the characters, especially since few if any are redeemable enough to do so. They all become punch lines to the aesthetic rather than three-dimensional creatures inhabiting the elaborate environment Anderson’s crafted. Everyone is selfish from Zissou’s arrogant captain stewarding his crew, friends, and enemies onto a path of destruction to Cate Blanchett‘s reporter Jane Winslett-Richardson deciding to write about the washed up explorer despite nobody’s demand as a means to escape the reality of her adulterous pregnancy for a few weeks to Michael Gambon‘s producer Oseary Drakoulias doing all he can to turn a buck at a time when his passport issues threaten his ability to do his job. And they each sacrifice so much that no success can make up for what they’ve lost.

In this respect Zissou is Anderson’s darkest work to date with high drama that he handles wonderfully through hyper-cut collages of color and quasi-freeze frames depicting emotional implosion. There have always been heavier moments in his films, but they still played for laughs. Here it’s almost as though he is willfully punishing his main character—reveling in burning his Icarus’ wings until Steve literally falls back to earth a beaten, remorseful man. Even when the explorer finds the courage to single-handedly take on a crew of pirates who have boarded his ship The Belafonte and taken hostages, the gain never outweighs the loss. Everyone on the boat is following him blindly to his/her death and they refuse to see it. I believe Steve knows, but as long as he gets his footage he doesn’t actually care.

That’s a tough line to toe for subject matter you’re attempting to make palatable for a mainstream audience. While I think this bold maneuver is exactly what makes so many love the film, it’s why I cannot enter it as more than an artwork of surfaces. My favorite character, Willem Dafoe‘s Klaus, is the movie’s most over-the-top caricature. My favorite sequences are those where the camera moves through Anderson’s insanely elaborate Belafonte cross-sectional set because of the artistry, timing, and precision as opposed to the conversations occurring between the people inhabiting the frame. Allowing Jeff Goldblum‘s seafaring nemesis Alistair Hennessey and Bud Cort‘s Bond Company Stooge Bill to be found during a rescue mission does nothing for the story but everything for the complex scene’s comedy. Everything serves the joke and/or the style rather than the script.

And that’s okay if there wasn’t what appears to be a personal drama at its center. If Murray’s iconic performance was ego devoid of sympathy I could look at Zissou as a screwball comedy like The Grand Budapest Hotel—truly existing for fun above all else. Because there’s so much more resonating on an emotional level deeper than that, however, I can’t help see it as a missed opportunity or failed experiment. I could watch it over and over and still not catch every nuance considering so much happens in the background that’s as important as what’s in focus, but the appeal of such an endeavor is purely academic and of a completist nature. I could care less about character development because no one is above the set, Seu Jorge‘s David Bowie covers, Henry Selick‘s animation, or any other peripheral aspect.

Before Budapest I’d have said this was Anderson’s most theatrical work: artifice trumping pathos. I’m not so certain that he made both with the same intentions, though. Whereas that 2014 release uses the style as a character in itself, Zissou looks to put its characters inside of it. In order to do so the plot must be as whimsical as the aesthetic. This exposé of a brilliant man caught way past his prime may have the humor to fake whimsy, but it is anything but. His tale is an epic tragedy that falls deeper and deeper into despair until he is literally and figuratively all alone. Rather than allow the audience to feel sorry for him throughout, however, we’re asked to initially laugh at his misfortunes instead. When Anderson finally needs us to care, it’s too late.

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