- The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) movie review: Wes Anderson’s mix of maritime adventure, existential drama, and Jacques Cousteau parody, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is torpedoed by a meandering screenplay and a lackluster central performance. Anderson and Noah Baumbach are to blame for the former; Bill Murray is to blame for the latter.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou offers chance to spend two hours watching Bill Murray at sea with ennui
If you pee in your pants laughing whenever Bill Murray raises a tired eyebrow, indicates boredom through sideway glances, or sighs with the air of someone who has seen it all, Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is the movie for you. On the other hand, if you find Bill Murray’s chronic ennui contagious, you might consider looking for entertainment elsewhere.
The Moby Dick-ish story of oceanographer/TV personality Steve Zissou in his quest for revenge against the “jaguar shark” that dined on his deep-sea-diving partner, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a mix of B-movie adventure, existential drama, and Jacques Cousteau parody.
In large part due to Murray’s flat non-performance as the aquatic-living Zissou, Anderson’s meandering comedy fails on all counts.
Plot red herrings & wit-free dialogue
Written by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, the film’s razor-thin plotline has Steve Zissou recruiting a motley crew of assistants and hangers-on before setting out to find the elusive underwater beast.
Among those onboard doing something or other – or just taking up screen space – are his estranged wife, Anjelica Huston; pilot Owen Wilson, a Southerner who may or may not be Zissou’s son; sun-fried journalist Cate Blanchett; turbaned cameraman Waris Ahluwalia; layabout Brazilian singer Seu Jorge (City of God); and assorted youthful bit players.
All types of mishaps occur during the sea journey, from an attack by Southeast Asian pirates to (maybe)-father-son rivalry for the attention of the reporter. Yet no matter how many plot twists and turns Anderson and Baumbach come up with, little of interest actually takes place.
Overblown crises and foolish red herrings – such as the mystery behind Zissou’s “son” – are thrown into the narrative mix, leading nowhere in terms of either plot or character development.
Compounding matters, the dialogue is filled with throwaway lines that should have been discarded long before shooting began. These are supposed to add a quirky, witty flavor to the proceedings, if only they weren’t lacking in both qualities.
Positive elements Bud Cort & Owen Wilson
Admittedly, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou does have its – however few and far between – moments of interest.
Wes Anderson’s characters are always doing something, so every now and then amusing bits of business can be spotted in the background or to the side of the screen. These feel especially appealing when juxtaposed against the unimaginative dullness seen front and center.
Besides, the maritime adventure offers a couple of performers in good form: veteran Bud Cort (Brewster McCloud, Harold and Maude), memorable in a small role as a hapless insurance man, and, surprisingly, Meet the Parents and Shanghai Knights actor Owen Wilson, who somehow manages to come across as agreeably creepy, foxy, and geeky.
As a plus, Anjelica Huston (looking like Yoko Ono’s long-lost sister) is always a welcome presence, commanding attention whenever she is on screen even though the Oscar winner (Best Supporting Actress for Prizzi’s Honor, 1985) doesn’t have much of a role. In fact, throughout the film Huston looks even more ennuyée than Bill Murray – albeit with more style.
Bill Murray fails where Cary Grant might have succeeded
As for Steve Zissou, that’s the kind of one-note role Cary Grantmight have been able to do something with. Instead of conveying a blend of indifference and boredom, Grant’s Zissou, irrespective of how many of his deep-sea-diving partners had been turned into shark fodder, might still have been able to express both amusement and annoyance at the vicissitudes of life.
Bill Murray, of course, is not Cary Grant, while The Life with Steve Zissou is not People Will Talk, Charade, or the equally nautical Operation Petticoat. Yet Murray has shown he can do first-rate work as long as he takes the trouble to upgrade his jaded persona to the next level.
In his particular situation, that means going in the opposite direction to Grant’s – i.e., to psychotic extremes. Case in point: His eerie, mentally unbalanced puppeteer in Tim Robbins’ otherwise dismal Cradle Will Rock.
Shallow-psyche diving + central miscasting sink Zissou
In all fairness, diving into his oceanographer’s psychotic neuroses would have been a tad much for the hero of fluff like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Nonetheless, Murray’s killer-shark killer-wannabe would have greatly benefited from a sharper edge.
It’s too bad that the star – apparently with the endorsement of his Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums director – felt too smugly satisfied with his trademark blasé demeanor to try to add even a drop of psychological undercurrent to his character. Unless, that is, one perceives Murray’s allowing himself to be filmed in swimming trunks as a subtle bit of Freudian portrayal.
In all, Bill Murray’s unwillingness to let his screen façade drop does both himself and his film a monumental disservice. That’s most evident in Zissou’s tearful, climactic moment, so embarrassingly awful that it isn’t even funny.
Wes Anderson’s decision to place his movie on Murray’s shrugging shoulders was thus a bad miscalculation, especially considering that the few highlights in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou are found along the periphery of plot, cast, and frame.
Anjelica Huston looking like Yoko Ono and a shark looking like an underwater Christmas tree may momentarily arouse viewers’ interest, but unless you’re a die-hard Bill Murray fan, the actor, whether deadpanning in Speedos or weeping fully clothed, will likely have the opposite effect.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
Director: Wes Anderson.
Screenplay: Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach.
Cast: Bill Murray. Owen Wilson. Cate Blanchett. Anjelica Huston. Willem Dafoe. Jeff Goldblum. Michael Gambon. Noah Taylor. Bud Cort. Seu Jorge. Robyn Cohen. Seymour Cassel. Waris Ahluwalia. Matthew Gray Gubler.
Cameo: Noah Baumbach.
Cinematography: Robert D. Yeoman. Film Editing: David Moritz. Music: Mark Mothersbaugh. Production Design: Mark Friedberg. Producers: Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, and Barry Mendel.
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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou cast and crew info via the AFI Catalog website and other sources.
Anjelica Huston and Bill Murray The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou images: Touchstone Pictures.
“The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: Bill Murray Torpedoes Meandering Maritime Mess” last updated in December 2020.