‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’: Bill Murray at sea with ennui
Those of you who roll in the aisles 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, those of us who find Bill Murray’s chronic ennui contagious might consider looking for entertainment elsewhere.
The story of oceanographer/TV personality Steve Zissou’s 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 movie fails on all counts.
Plot red herrings & wit-free dialogue
The 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 – but no matter how many plot twists and turns Wes Anderson and co-screenwriter Noah 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.
Bud Cort & Owen Wilson among few positive elements
But notwithstanding its myriad shortcomings, 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, the first half of 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 ennuiée 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 Grant might 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 feel and 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.
No deep-psyche diving
Admittedly, 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. Even so, 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 swim trunks as a subtle bit of Freudian portrayal.
Central miscasting torpedoes ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’
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 fan, the film’s star, whether deadpanning in Speedos or weeping fully clothed, will likely have the opposite effect.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
Dir.: Wes Anderson.
Scr.: Wes Anderson and 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.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou cast info via the IMDb.
Anjelica Huston and Bill Murray The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou images: Touchstone Pictures.
“The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: Bill Murray Torpedoes Wes Anderson’s Meandering Maritime Mess” last updated in May 2019.