The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

the life aquatic poster

Wes Anderson pictures are always an event. His first three pictures (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and the Royal Tenenbaums) have all been brilliant bits of quirky genius. I have waited not so patiently for his fourth picture, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, to make it to France. Though I tried to read little in the way of reviews, I couldn’t help but notice quite a bit of negativity being garnered it’s way. After viewing the film, I too, couldn’t help but feel a little letdown, but this has more to say about my expectations of a Wes Anderson picture, than the actual picture itself.

Bill Murray proves once again that he is a better actor post 50 than anyone could have imagined. He plays Steve Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau-esque oceanographer who has seen better days. He has spent the last decade scrounging harder and harder to find the funding for his voyages and the subsequent documentaries from them. It seems the critics have been harsher as his fans have become increasingly few. The film opens with Zissou showing his latest documentary to a bored audience. He is attempting to find funding for a second voyage, one that will allow him to exact revenge upon the jaguar shark that killed his friend. He finds the money through Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) who may be Zissou’s son, but no one is really quite sure.

Zissou and his might-be son, are accompanied by a ragtag crew and a reporter, Jane Winslet-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) who forms some kind of love triangle with Zissou and Plimpton. Aboard the rusty, ancient Belefante all hands set out to find the mythical shark. Though before they find the beast they encounter many adventures such as found in any road trip film.

Anderson fills his film once again with plenty of quirky, oddball characters. This time he seems to have filled the action as a means to pay homage to various movies and television shows from the 70s and 80s. There is an action sequence towards the middle that is straight out of a Charlie’s Angels or A-Team episode. The much-discussed animated fish seem to be copied from the Incredible Mr. Limpett. Many of the camera movements, including extensive use of close-up zoom on a single character only to zoom out and zoom out again to find the character surrounded by others, seem to be out of some classic television director guidebook. Before I realized Anderson was mimicking that style I was annoyed with the whole thing. Once I caught on I found a few of these moments to be brilliant put-ons, but often I felt like I was watching the last 15 minutes of Adaptation. Where yes I get the joke, and yes I find it funny, but it got tiresome rather quickly.

One of the joys of The Royal Tenenbaums is that each character is fleshed out to some degree. It is a large ensemble picture, but even the smaller roles have moments in which to give them some dimension, to make them real. The Life Aquatic similarly has a large cast, but all but the major characters are never given a chance to become three-dimensional. Why, for instance, does the navigator spend most of the film topless? If this is to present that she is a free spirit, why does she argue with Zissou over sailing over unprotected waters? Or why is she so upset with him for stealing the equipment? Her character is given no reasoning behind her behavior, and her actions only force the plot along without any purpose. She is not the only character like this. Either Anderson is again mimicking the plotless plotlines of classic television, or he has done a poor job of filling in the details of his characters.

Many things work in The Life Aquatic. Bill Murray proves again he is more than just a funny, funny man. The characters that are filled out, are aptly acted. Though just what is the deal with Cate Blanchett’s accent? She sounded like she was still hanging onto a bit of Katherine Hepburn. Anderson has again made a fun, funny, quirk of a movie. Yet, when compared to the rest of his output, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. Here’s to his next film, and hoping his brilliance continues to shine for a little while longer.

3 thoughts on “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

  1. Mat, for what it’s worth , this movie was so boring it goes down as one of my bottom 5 movies of all time. But that’s me.

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