An auteur goes under the sea in his most stylized movie yet. We get Bill Murray playing a vain oceanographer, Owen Wilson giving Foghorn Leghorn a run for his money, and the unforgettable debut of the Jaguar Shark. But does the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou live up to its legacy? Does Wes Anderson get a little lost at sea with his fourth film? Put on your scuba gear and climb aboard the Belafonte to find out…
Bienvenue and welcome. 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 pastel costumes, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them production team cameos, the inside references to previous films…overall, he envelops the audience in a vague time and eccentric place that’s not entirely our own.
I’ll also admit that I’m unfamiliar with most of Anderson’s 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, but the important thing is that, because the production design is so meticulous, I absolutely believed that these characters existed in a real world.
Anderson is clearly having fun filling in Zissou’s fictional past with a full catalog of previous documentaries, a wise mentor, an arch rival, and a brand deal with Adidas.
However, there is a problem at the center of the Belafonte, and it’s not the adorable albino dolphins that swim with the ship. It’s the titular captain.
Anderson’s previous effort, The Royal Tenenbaums places 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. Here, Steve Zissou 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.
But there are certainly fun subplots. I’m going to qualitatively analyze them the only way a mildly OCD amateur film critic in 2022 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 My 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 share 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. The Pregnant Reporter: Cate Blanchett is so good as the exceedingly pregnant Jane Winslett-Richardson (and nearly unrecognizable beneath her sunburn and British accent). Her relationship with Ned (Owen Wilson) is also very sweet. This is the only movie Blanchett makes with Wilson which is an absolute shame. Anderson tends to work so well with sophisticated movie stars although I’m guessing Tilda Swinton probably takes the Cate Blanchett role in later films like Moonrise Kingdom and The French Dispatch.
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 the build-up to it doesn’t quite work.
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 List
Moving on to the music. 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 the track “Ping Island/Lightning Strike Rescue Op” 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 myself, I’ll always appreciate some rapid-fire/melancholy flute-playing.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Seu Jorge’s David Bowie covers translated into Portuguese. He’s got a great voice and it does wonders for delivering a cozy hang-out vibe aboard the Belafonte.
Regardless of Jorge’s dreamy strumming, I’ll have to admit that I find The Life Aquatic to be lesser Wes Anderson. It’s incredibly ambitious, and I appreciate that immensely, but it feels a bit 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.
So far, though, 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.
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.
But the parts of the movie that work, work in a stunning fashion. In Matt Zoller Seitz’s book The Wes Anderson Collection, the director goes into detail about the climax with the jaguar shark:
“I remember at a certain point, while Noah and I were working on it, we had to ask, “Well does it exist, this jaguar shark?” And we decided, “I guess it does.” And then, at the end, they go down into the ocean, and they see it.” We thought we should have it arrive. And that it was going to stand for everything. I remember Scott Rudin, one of our producers, kept asking us, “What’s the metaphor? What’s the metaphor?” And at a certain point, we felt like, “’What’s the metaphor?’ We don’t want to answer that. We just want to embrace it.” Because we had a very large symbol that was going to swim into the frame.”
The climax with the jaguar shark works because Anderson is reckoning with the inexplicable. It’s more about feeling and less about plot or circumstances. It’s one of the few moments of pure spectacle in a Wes Anderson movie and is unforgettable as a result.
The rest of the film is more like a chaotic seafood gumbo where Anderson’s just as concerned about focusing on Zissou’s melancholic vanity as he is with giving the audience a maritime vacation. The outcome doesn’t quite taste right but I’m sure with a few more years of practice Wes Anderson can deliver a solid European adventure-comedy…but that would be getting ahead of ourselves.
For our next feature, pack your exquisitely-patterned travel luggage and get ready to delve into familial discomfort, because we’re going to hop aboard The Darjeeling Limited.
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And as always…the Sarris Wheel spins on!