The Films of Wes Anderson: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
Editor's Note: Very minor spoilers.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou manages to be both dry and silly at the same time, which is an impressive, if confusing, achievement. While everything about it will seem familiar to any Wes Anderson film, it also is quite a bit different than his past three films. There's more of a punchiness to the film that accentuates the dry humor. There also is less drama, or at least less affecting drama. It borders on ridiculous--okay, hell, it pushes right over the border at times--and yet never loses that Wes Anderson flair that most people either love or hate.
The movie deals with Steve Zissou, played wonderfully by Bill Murray, heading out on a final voyage at sea to track down and kill the jaguar shark that ate his partner. Joining him on the trip is Owen Wilson's character Ned Plimpton--who may be Zissou's son, we learn early on--Cate Blanchett's character Jane Winslett-Richardson, who is a reporter writing a cover story to give the crew some badly-needed press, and Zissou's regular crew, headed up brilliantly by Willem Dafoe. Oh, and there are some well-abused interns. Dealing with sea life in a few different sequences, the film takes the opportunity to use some awesome stop-motion animation by Henry Selick, which really adds to the film and gives it a unique presence. It's very cool to look at and makes the underwater sequences quite memorable.
This movie is funny, without a doubt. I found it even more amusing the second time I watched it, though that was probably influenced by the two dark beers I had in me. Still, there is a constant sense of shenanigans overhanging the proceedings, which works beautifully. As I said, there is also a heavy amount of dry wit, which is common in any Anderson film. It all meshes together very well to create something that is very entertaining and familiar for Anderson fans. Yet it stands apart from his other films.
The movie has taken some critical hits. It generally received favorable reviews, but there were many critics who claimed it to show that Anderson's shtick is getting a bit old and others that said it simply could not measure up to his other works. I'm somewhat mixed myself on where I stand on this. First of all, the movie is definitely less affecting than his others, particularly The Royal Tenenbaums. This isn't necessarily for lack of trying, either, though the film does give the distinct impression that it was going for a more light-hearted feel than the very heavy Royal Tenenabaums. But there certainly are attempts at emotional story-telling here. There is a scene toward the end of Life Aquatic that I won't reveal, lest you have not yet seen the movie, but that feels as though it should have hit me harder than it did. The characters in the movie are wonderful, but they didn't get to me the same way as in Anderson's other movies. This can be a little disorienting if you go into the movie expecting something more along the lines of Tenenbaums, which just kicked my ass emotionally. Bottle Rocket was largely the same and even Rushmore--hilarious as it was--had some very affecting moments to it.
This movie, however, is in no way a failure. It's silly and ridiculous, very funny, outrageous at times in its absurdity and incredibly creative. I can't fault any of that. In fact, I can do nothing but celebrate it. No, nothing slams me emotionally like in The Royal Tenenbaums, but that doesn't make this a bad movie. It makes it a different and more understated movie and I certainly appreciate Anderson taking more risks.
The main relationship in the movie--between Zissou and Ned--is a tough one to deal with. There are some nice moments there and Anderson does a great job of writing Zissou as a reticent father figure, as someone who easily proclaims to his (supposed) son that he never wanted to be a father, that he in fact hates fathers. Zissou makes some real mistakes as a parent, both in the course of this film and in the character's history, as recounted during the movie. However, the audience isn't led to hate him or feel that he is a terrible person. He's just someone who probably should never be a father. He acts poorly at times but does not do it meanspiritedly, which allows us to still care about him and wish the best for him even while recognizing his deficiencies.
The relationship between the two is mixed up nicely with the presence of Jane, who ends up creating tension between Ned and Steve. It's tough to judge how well Blanchett does in this movie. She's a great actress, without a doubt, and does a wonderful job. However, she isn't an Anderson regular and she seems less prone to the quirkiness that is featured in abundance in most of Anderson's characters. However, it seems that it is probably purposeful, as her character acts largely as a straight man for the other characters to play against.
Wes Anderson is famous for his details and they are well represented in Life Aquatic. They're seen in off-hand comments by the characters, in the opulence of the ship they travel on, despite how it looks on the outside, in the way that Zissou deals with relationships--particularly with people who disappoint him in some way or who pose an emotional threat to him. It's seen in the only female crew member being topless throughout the first half of the movie, without any explanation whatsoever. There are silly moments, like when the crew runs through a puddle and suddenly Zissou is covered with leeches--and is the only one, much to his chagrin. It makes no sense and will leave most viewers wondering what the hell Anderson was on when he wrote the movie, but if that sort of humor hits you the way it does me, you'll be laughing like mad. I live for these offbeat moments. They're one of the main reasons I so love Anderson's movies.
If you like Anderson's movies, you're going to enjoy this. If you haven't gone for his movies in the past, this one might be a little more accessible, but it's still very much a Wes Anderson movie. If you don't get him, you probably never will. But if you go for his humor, you're going to love this. Maybe not as much of his other movies, but you'll like it. You'll laugh. You'll scratch your head. And you'll immediately start looking forward to his next work.
The Films of Wes Anderson: Bottle Rocket
The Films of Wes Anderson: Rushmore
The Films of Wes Anderson: The Royal Tenenbaums