Brian and Danielle Dive Into…The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

BRIAN: First off ( and I want to get this out of the way), nothing is going to charm me more than putting stop-motion animation in a live-action movie. Whenever I see it, I transform into a little kid watching a Rankin/Bass Christmas special and I get a warm, fuzzy feeling all over. Now, is that feeling at odds with a movie about adults dealing with issues like death, divorce and familial neglect? Absolutely. But dammit, when you show me an oceanographer holding a meticulously rendered crayon ponyfish braying inside its plastic baggie, I’m gonna get that warm, fuzzy feeling even if that same oceanographer is in a deep depression.

All of that to say, welcome to the malaise-ridden wonder emporium of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. I believe that this is the first film in Wes Anderson’s oeuvre where he goes “full Wes Anderson”, indulging in the stylistic quirks that the general public thinks of when they think of one of his films: the dollhouse sets, the quasi-fictional locales, the costumes that belong to a vague time and place that’s not our own.

I’ll also admit that I’m unfamiliar with most of the inspiration for the film. It was a little difficult for me to contextualize the setting and characters since I’ve never read Moby Dick or seen a Jacques Cousteau film. What about yourself, Danielle? What’s your general impression of Steve Zissou?

DANIELLE: I am excited to jump into this movie. Or dive right in even at the risk of the dreaded jaguar shark getting us! I am going to also get something out of the way – I didn’t like this movie. Maybe I wasn’t the target audience for this or perhaps watching it in 2021 as opposed to when it came out has jaded me in appreciating the originality of it at the time? Your point about this being “full Wes Anderson” is a fantastic way to describe this. There is an SNL short with the premise of “What if Wes Anderson directed a horror movie?” with Ed Norton that I could not stop thinking about during this because they jokingly hit on most elements in this movie (stop motion animation, shots of hands, shots of handwriting, fun music to a movie with serious themes etc.) There were things that I appreciated about this movie that I can speak to but I was so surprised to see that this was not a three hour movie because it felt like it. I think that is where I can start. 

This movie felt long because of its muddy plot. There was a lot happening which took me a while to get over. I found myself hung up on the overarching plot which could be straightforward and fun – an adventure/vengeance movie where an oceanographer/filmmaker and his recently-discovered son set out to discover and kill the shark that killed his former partner. And that fits with the eclectic music (hello covers of Bowie in Portuguese) and fun elements of this movie. But then that plotline kind of fades into the background and there were more darker themes about going out of the spotlight that I honestly forgot about the jaguar shark at the end. I think not expecting those shifts (which I suppose I should have given that we see a similar tone shift in Royal Tenenbaums). 

What did you think? Did you like all of the subplots or did you also find it distracting? 

BRIAN: There is something tonally off about the movie that you did a good job describing. Royal Tenenbaums puts likeable characters into a stew of depression better than Life Aquatic does. Maybe the themes go down smoother with the ensemble cast. You get a little dose of Margot’s malaise before jumping into Etheline’s ennui, etc. In this movie, Zissou kind of sucks up all the oxygen in the room with his bitter narcissism. Which isn’t to say that Bill Murray’s bad in the movie. I think he’s quite good. It’s just not a fun character to stay on a boat with for two hours.

Since you asked about the various subplots, I’m going to qualitatively analyze them the only way a mildly OCD amateur film critic in 2021 knows how…with a ranking! That’s right. Without further ado, I present to you my dangerously overthought Ranking of the Various Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou Subplots (In the Order of Brian’s Emotional Investment):

1. Alistair Hennessy (Jeff Goldblum) and his rivalry with Zissou: This is the good stuff. Goldblum is such a good foil for a washed-up Bill Murray and every scene they have together is filled with delicious tension. If this was the central premise of the movie (two oceanographers dueling over government funding while hurling petty insults at each other), I would’ve been as happy as a sugar crab.

2. The Bond Company Stooge: This subplot is set up as a big deal in the movie and then forgotten before being re-discovered when the Zissou team rescues him. I think this had a lot of comedic potential that was squandered, especially when the stooge in question is played by Bud Cort (of Brewster McCloud fame!). I like the idea of a fastidious little accountant man annoying an oceanographer who considers himself an aquatic free spirit artiste.

3. Pregnant Reporter: Cate Blanchett is so good as the exceedingly pregnant Jane Winslett-Richardson (and nearly unrecognizable beneath her sunburn and accent). Her relationship with Ned (Owen Wilson) is also very sweet.

4. Eleanor and Javier: So this one might not be so much a subplot as a throwaway sight gag, but I really enjoyed the idea that Eleanor (Angelica Huston) was getting her groove back with a dumb hottie straight off the cover of a Harlequin Romance novel. It was a well-deserved dig at her unfaithful husband and Bill Murray’s reaction shot is priceless.

5. Zissou’s Quest to Avenge His Partner’s Death: Maybe I’d be more invested if I got to know Esteban even a little bit. Since there are so many other people vying for the position of second banana (Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe and Matthew Gray Gubler), it’s hard to care about Steve losing his barely-seen right-hand man. However, the last scene with the jaguar shark is pretty breathtaking, even if I didn’t enjoy the build-up to it.

6. Zissou’s Long Lost Son: Whether or not Ned is actually Steve’s long-lost son, it’s not a particularly stable emotional anchor for the movie. Owen Wilson straddles this bizarre line between charming and idiotic and his character only serves to bring out the worst in Steve’s nature. It’s just not enjoyable watching Steve take advantage of Ned’s optimism. Also, Ned’s death at the end of the movie is an unforgivable casualty in Zissou’s battle with his own egomania. 

End of Ranking.

You mentioned the Bowie covers in the movie, Danielle. How did you like the music (score and soundtrack) overall? Did you think Seu Jorge’s vocal stylings were magnificent or simply so-so?

DANIELLE: Thank you for taking the time to list out these plots because I really struggled on my own nailing down all the different plotlines. You make a good point about why the various plots don’t totally work here versus Royal Tenenbaums. It’s a little tough to follow a bunch of different plots when one person is at the center of them. It does feel like when there is a side plot with a non-Zissou character, they kind of drop it. 

I had this issue with the pregnant reporter plotline. I would actually place that lower on my list of plots that I liked because it doesn’t go anywhere. I suppose I was invested while watching because I assumed we would get some big reveal with the baby’s father but nope! I know that Cate Blanchett was newly pregnant during this movie so I assumed that this was a last minute character trait that was sloppily squeezed in. 

With that said, I did like her relationship with Ned. I thought it was sweet and played a nice contrast to how Zissou treats her. I do think one issue that I had with this movie (which is perhaps a sign of the time) is the homophobic and misogynistic language. They use some offensive language to call Jane a lesbian when she declines Zissou’s advances and use homophobic slurs more than once as an insult. So that just didn’t totally age well for me. I tried to remove that factor in my view of the movie but I did find myself wincing a little.

I do appreciate that you put the Ned and Zissou father/son plot last on your list. I also wasn’t very invested and at times forgot that they were father and son. As I thought more about it, I think that having that plot as the least compelling may have fit with one of the overall themes of the movie. What I took away from this movie is that the things you have such high hopes for to give you purpose can end up being totally meaningless. We are to believe that the story is a long lost father and son finding each other and growing into those roles. However, that doesn’t really end up happening. Zissou doesn’t truly become the father that Ned wanted and being a father doesn’t give Zissou the glory that he wants. So I kind of feel like as a viewer I weirdly felt the same about this movie.

Now for your question about music. I did like the music! The Ping Island/Lightning Strike Rescue Op is iconic. In college, I briefly saw parts of this movie in passing and while I don’t remember any of the plot, I very vividly remember that song. It is the perfect song to match the playful visual of the movie. I thought the  Bowie covers were fun and really fit with the randomness of this movie (hello, there is an orca whale just swimming in the background in a tank). 

I am curious, what was your main movie takeaway, Brian? Was there any theme in particular that resonated for you?

BRIAN: AHHHH!!! The Ping Island/Lightning Strike Rescue Op! I’m very, very glad you brought that up. This film marks Wes Anderson’s last collaboration with Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo fame), who had been his composer since Bottle Rocket. I think that specific track might be the best theme to come out of their partnership. It’s beautifully orchestrated, peculiar, and, most of all, exciting! It definitely promises the audience something that the movie itself can’t quite deliver but, even so, it’s a killer track. As a flautist, I’ll always appreciate some rapid-fire/melancholy flute-playing.

As far as a main movie takeaway is concerned, I’ll have to admit that I find this to be lesser Wes Anderson. It’s incredibly ambitious, and I appreciate that immensely, but it feels soulless, especially when compared to his earlier work. I connect with the theme of childhood friendships aging poorly in Bottle Rocket, the cautionary tale of shortcuts to success in Rushmore, or the inevitable casualties of arrested development in Royal Tenenbaums. But there’s nothing exceptionally personal to latch onto in Zissou.

I do like the themes of celebrity culture at the beginning. The unemotional autograph hounds and antagonistic paparazzi are a good way to introduce the protagonist (and Bill Murray plays those scenes perfectly), but that aspect of the movie mostly disappears when Zissou leaves the film festival. I think you kind of nailed it when you talked about the central theme of the movie being: “What you think gives your life purpose can actually become quite meaningless.” That’s just a bit too depressing for me to fully embrace.

Now, I haven’t really talked about how the movie looks. Anderson had a production budget of about $50 million for this movie, his highest budget for a live-action film to date, and all that dough certainly made it to the screen. The elaborate sets, David Bowie songs, and animated sequences are all incredibly expensive (not to mention the associated costs of shooting a chunk of the movie on THE ACTUAL OCEAN) , but Anderson uses all those ingredients to make the movie look and sound terrific. Not that audiences took much note.

The film only made about half its production budget at the box office, making it Anderson’s biggest flop. I’ll be interested to see if the commercial failure of Zissou leads him to change certain aspects of his filmmaking process for future flicks.

But throwing back to you, Danielle. Any final thoughts on Life Aquatic?

DANIELLE: I do want to touch on the look of the movie.  Wes Anderson manages to create his own world within ours and that is one of my favorite parts of his movies. Rushmore and Royal Tenenbaums were less fantastical than Zissou even then they felt very much like their own little worlds. Also, the costumes are iconic! I have seen that baby blue suit and beanie on a group of hipsters out on Halloween multiple times within the last 5 years. I’ll even admit that I have considered it once or twice. Milena Canonero did costume design for this one. She also did costumes for A Clockwork Orange, Dick Tracy, and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette so that playfulness comes through here. She and Anderson will work together again in some of his later next movies so I look forward to seeing more of her quirky creations. 

Lastly, the fact that this movie is Anderson’s most expensive is not surprising. This movie really feels like he got a budget boost and decided to try everything he has ever wanted to do. I think “He tried EVERYTHING” is my review summary because this movie is bloated with visuals, plot, characters, etc. On the flip side, that bloat does align with the values of our Zissou. It’s over the top and so is he. So in that sense, it all fits!

I am looking forward to watching his next movies! With Royal Tenenbaums and Zissou, I feel that we have officially crossed into more mainstream Anderson territory. It will be interesting to see what his next movies look like now that we’ve learned that more money does not equal more movie success (or even more developed plots).

BRIAN: In the Criterion Blu-ray special features, there’s a behind-the-scenes documentary where Bill Murray forces Wes Anderson to nail down the genre of the movie. Anderson responds with, “Adventure-Comedy, like Romancing the Stone.” I think that’s probably a big misstep with the movie. I don’t think, at this stage of his career, Anderson knows quite how to tell that kind of story. Although he makes a valiant attempt (and in the process manages to perfect certain parts of his precise filmmaking aesthetic), he comes up short and doesn’t really give his audience much adventure or much comedy.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Danielle and Brian have been frenemies since their college years. Although Danielle is burning the midnight oil in Chicago next to Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and Brian is experiencing delusions of grandeur in Los Angeles next to giant white letters, The Sarris Wheel has reunited them at last.Kick back with Danielle at her blog, Wild Night In.

And if you liked this conversation, check out the Sarris Wheel’s Youtube channel here.

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