The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Posted by: |

Every once in a while, there comes a movie that so defies explanation that it renders me incapable for writing for a full month. This is that movie. Filmmaker Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tannenbaums) loves the quirky, the ugly (interior), and the true things in the world. He celebrates the wacky and eschews the mundane. That said, I find it, film by film, increasingly hard to be engaged by his movies. Life Aquatic, in particular, appears in the previews to be a revenge comedy about a has-been Jacques Cousteau-type hunting down a shark, but instead it is a lovingly painted portrait of this man’s sad sacktitude and the people he infuriates. That, and his maybe-relationship with his maybe-son and possibly even his maybe-erstwhile wife and his colleague. So, it’s about a lot, and event occur, but nothing happens.

Cinematographer Robert Yeoman makes the entire movie a snapshot – every shot is a straight on portrait-style, flat, centered, boxy Every one of these tableaux adds up to a weird sense of having watched a slide show instead of a film. It’s an interesting and bold choice, and it was executed skillfully, but I wouldn’t say it helped make this chilly film any warmer.

Casting Bill Murray as an aging ex superstar with a sour center is certainly a fantastic choice. Anderson’s love for Murray is evident. He puts Murray and his crew (including notables Noah Taylor and Willem Dafoe, and songs by Seu Jorge) in this fantastic ship set, not even trying to make it seem like a real place but an actual cutaway set which he uses often in his snapshotty way. Scratch that – this movie is more like a filmstrip. So, kudos for tone and flavor, but if you take the meat of something we aren’t inclined to eat, all the best seasonings in the world won’t save it.

As always, the soundtrack is smart and interesting, doubly so with Jorge singing Brazilian Portuguese adaptations of David Bowie songs. The aquatic life is just an excuse to get these people trapped in a small space together and to know each other for years and for Murray to have some bitterness and fame-sickness. I came out feeling pretty unsatisfied, but of course the film stymied me so long, I have even more trouble now identifying what bothered me so much. Even Bud Cort’s little appearance made me sadder than it pleased me. Cate Blanchett is tan, extremely British, and pregnant, all for no reason, and the motivation to include her character and that of Anjelica Huston was lost on me. Maybe the media are making me stupid, but I could not connect with this film whatsoever. I admire its visual integrity and I like the idea of Owen Wilson in a movie with Bill Murray, but not this movie.

MPAA Rating R-language, drug use, violence, some nudity
Release date 12/25/04
Time in minutes 118
Director Wes Anderson
Studio Touchstone Pictures