Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou - 2004

"The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" - 2004
Dir. by Wes Anderson - 1 hr. 58 min.

Criterion Collection Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I caught the second half of "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" on cable earlier this week, and had intended only to re-watch the first forty-five minutes or so, up to the point where I had tuned in.  Instead, I got sucked right back in and watched the whole thing all the way through.  In my recollection, I'd considered this film to be the weaker cousin of a couple of movies ("Lost in Translation," for the Bill Murray connection, and "The Darjeeling Limited," another Wes Anderson film that is tonally similar), but I don't think that's necessarily a fair assessment.  It's not that I think "Zissou" is on equal footing with either of those films, but it's got it's own merits that demand more respect than that.

Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is a Cousteau-type (a debt acknowledged in the end credits) in the middle of a late-career slump.  His documentaries haven't been striking a chord with anyone in a while, and during the filming of the last one, his long-time crew-mate and best friend, Esteban (Seymour Cassell) is eaten by a sea-creature that Zissou only gets a fleeting look at, and dubs the "jaguar shark."  Zissou wants to hunt down this creature for his next documentary (and for revenge), but literally everything is falling apart in front of him.  He can't get financing, his marriage is on shaky ground, people are openly mocking of Zissou to his face, he's lost his best friend, and Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) arrives, claiming to be his son.  On top of all of this, he's forced to cooperate with a reporter, Jane (Cate Blanchett) who wants to do a cover article on Zissou, as he can't afford to pass up the publicity.  Zissou and company head out on an expedition to hunt down the jaguar shark on Ned's inheritance money, making Ned a Team Zissou member.

There are two big reasons why this film begs immediate comparison to the previously mentioned films.  First is what you'd think of as "typical" late-career Bill Murray, in films like this one, "Broken Flowers," or "Lost in Translation."  Murray has pared his acting down to the bare minimum of action, somehow communicating fluently through expressionlessness.  It's something that only he can manage to do, and it's entirely appropriate here.  It also plays into the sort of tone that Wes Anderson only can manage to create in this film and in "The Darjeeling Limited."  There's a sort of searching going on in with Zissou, for some kind of direction that's been lost.  The fact that life just won't let up on him, piling frustration on top of tragedy on top of roadblock, offers an unspoken desperation to that search.

When Zissou does finally have some direction (even if it's not a larger, regenerative realization that he needs), the character comes alive.  He's a man who does things, first and foremost.  There are three moments where Zissou really breaks that mold, small moments that carry heavy dramatic weight.  The first is a moment shared with Ned during an attempt to rescue the bond company stooge, who has been kidnapped by pirates.  Steve levels with Ned, telling him how important it is to meet him at this stage in his life.  The second one is following the helicopter crash, and Anderson pulls back from Zissou at this point.  In his own way, Steve has warmed up to Ned, and to have him taken away is agonizing (and worse than seeing Steve react to Esteban's death early in the film, considering that we've barely even been introduced to any of the characters at that point).  The last one is a line Zissou offers when everyone's in the submersible, and they've finally tracked down the jaguar shark.  He says simply, "I wonder if it remembers me."  It's a complete gut-punch of a line, followed up with all of the other people literally reaching out to him in support.  At this point, every step that Zissou has taken in his life has reached a conclusion, and there's no more road.  For the first time in forever, he has the opportunity to make choices, and to forge a path of his choosing.

All of the things (or "quirks," if you're being bitchy about it) that you think of when you think of a Wes Anderson film are present: exquisitely detailed and stylized environments, deadpan deliveries, father issues, Owen Wilson, classic rock-influenced soundtrack (although this one, full of David Bowie songs performed in Portuguese by Seu Jorge, is fantastic).  In this sense, you get exactly what you want out of the film.  Even all the claymation-animated creatures that fill up the sea here are a visual delight.  I do think that Anderson made a better film with a similar dynamic in "The Darjeeling Limited," but I also think that Bill Murray does a better job here than any of the leads in that film.  If this is your sort of film, you're going to really enjoy "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou."  If you're not completely sold on Wes Anderson's films, this isn't the one I'd use to change your mind with, but it's not a bad choice, either.

3.5 / 5 - DVD

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