The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou Review
Love him or loathe him, Wes Anderson is a true original. There's no way you could confuse his fanciful, deadpan comedies with anyone else's films. Whether he's directing a crime movie (Bottle Rocket), a coming of age picture (Rushmore) or a family saga (The Royal Tenenbaums), the result is always uniquely his. That's also true of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which is on one level a sea adventure featuring pirates and killer sharks, on another level a frequently hilarious Bill Murray comedy and on still another a poignant adult drama. You probably know by now whether Anderson's style of film-making suits your tastes. If it doesn't, this won't convert you. If it does, you should find The Life Aquatic as much of a quirky delight as I did.
Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is an oceanographer and documentary film-maker whose celebrity is on the fade. Once he was as big as Jacques Cousteau and the idol of children the world over. Today his films are greeted with scattered applause and his producer (Michael Gambon) struggles to scrape together the funding for his next project. Gloating rival Alistair Hennessy (Jeff Goldblum) gets the lion's share of the grant money now and he enjoys rubbing Steve's nose in it. Zissou is thinking seriously about packing it all in after he and his crew have completed one final expedition. Their mission: to track down and kill the mysterious jaguar shark that ate his best friend.
As Team Zissou prepares to set sail in the Belafonte, Steve's ramshackle World War II minesweeper, they're joined by an unexpected guest. Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) is the son of a former girlfriend of Steve's and there is the distinct possibility that he may be the father. Feeling guilty for having suspected this for years and never done anything about it, Steve talks the young man into signing up for the voyage and introduces him to the crew. Team Zissou includes Steve's bored wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), his possessive German mate Klaus (Willem Dafoe), a topless script assistant, a bunch of unpaid interns and a deckhand who sings David Bowie songs in Portuguese. Also along for the ride is pregnant British journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), who Steve fears is going to demolish him in print.
Wes Anderson isn't about being odd just for the sake of it. Somehow all these pieces fit together to form a completely satisfying movie that's funny, wise and surprisingly touching. It's a story about love and redemption - about a son coming to know his father, about a father coming to realise what a selfish prick he's become and about a jaded old man rediscovering his passion for life. In case that sounds too heavy, it also has pirates and killer sharks. And Bill Murray. And a topless script girl. A Wes Anderson film is anything but predictable.
The Life Aquatic is graced with some of the director's typically bold, stylistic touches. Scenes set on board the Belafonte are shot on a soundstage mock-up of the vessel that's been split down the middle. One lengthy tracking shot follows Bill Murray and Owen Wilson through hatches and up ladders from one end of the ship to the other. Anderson doesn't even try to disguise the technique. A subplot about pirates leads to some bizarre action scenes. Gunfights in the movies are almost always directed to look cool, no matter what the context. Anderson makes his look as silly as possible, like he was filming a bunch of kids playing cowboys and indians. Of all the film's flourishes, my favourite has to be the quaint-looking marine creatures. They're animated by Henry Selick who made The Nightmare Before Christmas and they add a lovely storybook feel to the movie.
Aside from being a wonderfully flamboyant piece of cinema, The Life Aquatic is a great showcase for Bill Murray, a comedian who has lost none of his edge despite almost thirty years of fame. Most comics peak quickly and spend the rest of their careers in decline. Murray is still on the way up. It's amazing how much mileage he's gotten out of that aloof, ironic persona, how versatile he can be within it and how much soul he can suggest beneath it. What other actor could have played Steve Zissou or indeed the characters in Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Rushmore and Lost In Translation? The rest of the cast gamely play their parts and there isn't a slacker among them - who knew Willem Dafoe could be so funny? - but it's Murray's show and he's rarely been better.