The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
Director: Wes Anderson. Screenplay: Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. Cast: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, Seymour Cassel, Bud Cort
Screenwriter and film director Wes Anderson has made a career out of quirky films that have an avid fallowing, even while offering little depth. He rarely pushes himself, and why his latest film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) was considered worthy of treatment by The Criterion Collection, which usually reserves its accolades for films of stature — both American and foreign — is a puzzle. Granted, they deemed Anderson’s prior mediocre effort, The Royal Tenenbaums, and the 1998 mega-flop sci-fi action flick Armageddon worthy of their treatment, but that still is not enough reason to justify this entry into their pantheon — their three hundredth title, in fact.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was co-written by another indie filmmaker, Noah Baumbach (The Squid & the Whale), but it’s really just an excuse to give the film’s star, Bill Murray, a reason to act like he always does. It’s a tossup between Murray, in his dryly sardonic roles, and Morgan Freeman, in his wise old Negro roles, as to which Hollywood actor more regularly phones in his performances. Bill Murray does not act; whatever the character’s name, Murray simply exists as Bill Murray — and in film after film, it gets a bit tiring seeing him do the same old schtick.
In The Life Aquatic, Murray is Captain Steve Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau-like TV and film documentarian and oceanographer who creates his shows with a preciousness that would make Cousteau or Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom host Marlin Perkins gag. He’s fifty-two, has found out he has a thirty-year-old son named Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson, another one-note actor), and has just lost his co-host and best friend Esteban (Seymour Cassel) to a hungry ’jaguar shark.’
The rest of the cast is filled with similarly one-dimensional characters who think that acting one dimensionally is funny. Willem Dafoe is Klaus Daimler, and acts like Klaus Kinski, the stereotypically German quasi-Nazi. Cate Blanchett plays Jane Winslett-Richardson, a pregnant reporter who is out to do a magazine cover story on Team Zissou and their ship, The Belafonte. Angelica Huston is Zissou’s shrewish boy toy chasing wife Eleanor. Jeff Goldblum is her first husband, Alistair Hennessey, a bisexual and wealthier rival in the oceanography business.
Basically, the setup promises a Moby Dick-type comic hunt for the jaguar shark, but it never delivers on that vow. Instead, we get poorly written scenes of Zissou hitting on the reporter (who prefers his son), trying and failing to foster fatherly love for and from Ned, and then trying to fend off Filipino pirates and recover the bond company stooge (Bud Cort) the pirates kidnap. About the only deviation from formula is the fact that Ned dies at film’s end. Other than this, there is no narrative; The Life Aquatic consists of a string of gags, only about a third of which work.
In a sense, Anderson is a bit more imaginative Charlie Kaufman, whose silly and contrived scripts are deemed ’genius’ by the living banalities that plague Hollywood studios (as well as those in positions of critical power and influence). Anderson’s screenplay is studded with the sort of ’insider’ jokes all his films have; those lines that perhaps a dozen people in a crowded theater will laugh at, and only a third of them will know why they’ve chuckled. Admittedly, Anderson’s films in general, and The Life Aquatic in particular, are not truly bad; they’re just not good.
The CGI effects of the sea creatures, however, are truly bad. That does not enhance the film’s comic aspects; in fact, it only tips off that the rest of the humor is as phony as the visual effects. But it’s the phony reactions of the characters, such as the ’tension’ between Ned and Klaus, that sink The Life Aquatic. Yes, this is a comedy, but well-written adult comedies — think Woody Allen in his prime — succeed because they play off of fully developed characters. No character in Anderson’s aquatic adventure actually connects with one another or with the audience — they are all islands, and if those talking stereotypes occasionally float into each other that’s mere happenstance. That’s hardly what one expects from a film released by the prestigious Criterion.
I watched the the single-disc DVD, though Criterion also put out a double-disc version with more extras. The commentary track by Anderson and co-writer Baumbach was apparently recorded live at the same New York café where they wrote The Life Aquatic. This fact has no bearing on their rather tepid and self-congratulatory comments, but it does distract from actually hearing what they have to say about the making of the film. In a recapitulation of why most of the film’s humor fails, Anderson bleeps out any mention of Jacques Cousteau’s name. Ain’t you ready to guffaw over that? There are also ten deleted scenes, the trailer, and a “making of” featurette from Starz! However, none of these give any real insight into the film or its creation.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is certainly not a bad film; it’s merely a forgettable one despite a few good moments, such as a late montage scene to the tune of The Zombies’ “The Way I Feel Inside.” That a great but neglected 1960s pop band gets a nod in a film made in the early 21st century is almost enough for me to recommend this tepid offering — but not quite.
While you may not be pulling your hair out over the condescending tone of Anderson’s film, say like in Schindler’s List, Crash, or Brokeback Mountain, at least those films evoke intense reactions, however negative. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a shrug and a yawn, and in a decade it will be all but forgotten. Whether its creator will also be a thing of the past is the real question, for ’hot young directors’ are like starlets to the studios that chew them up and spit them out. Wes Anderson has talent, but he’s yet to match his similarly named competitor, Paul Thomas Anderson, whose films — such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia — despite their flaws, are superior to anything Wes has wrought.
Mainstreaming him might actually be a boon to Anderson, as long as he is willing to ferret out good screenplays written by others. His distorting of reality into comedy can work, but in all of his films he’s yet to have a single real or likable character emerge. Indeed, The Life Aquatic feels like the cinematic equivalent of a good working first draft. Throughout the film, I kept wondering what it could have become had it been written by Terry Southern and directed by Stanley Kubrick, the duo who created the great Dr. Strangelove, which shares a similarly humorously misanthropic view of life. Regardless, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is potential without realization, like most of its audience members. Perhaps that’s the reason those eight people laughing do so without knowing why — and they simply don’t care.
© Dan Schneider
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.