Monday, December 27, 2004

The Life Aquatic

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (Director: Wes Anderson)

Wes Anderson has come out with nothing but gold since he began making films. His credits include Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums. He also co-wrote all three with Owen Wilson, who also stars in all of the films except for Rushmore.

This film is a little bit of a head-scratcher. I can't say it's great, and I can't say it's bad. Bill Murray (in his 3rd Anderson film and is great as always) plays Steve Zissou, an ocean adventurer who makes films of his exploits along with his crew on the Belafonte. On his last expedition, his friend Esteban (Seymour Cassell, his 3rd) was eaten by a jaguar shark, and Zissou vows to make his next expedition all about revenge.

Several problems, though: the film he makes doesn't picture the shark, and not many people believe it exists, raising questions as to whether Zissou may have killed his friend (not necessarily a plot point). Plus, Zissou's films always have the air of fakery to them, so all of his adventures seem staged. This, combined with the fact that the jaguar shark is an endangered species, lead to more problems getting funding for the trip.

Owen Wilson plays Ned, a man who may or may not be Zissou's illegitimate son from an affair long ago, who tags along not only as a function of family but for Zissou's vision of having a subplot in his new film. Ned falls in love with a pregnant reporter, Jane (Cate Blanchett, who has become Queen of Christmas Releases), who seems interested in finding a scandal..

Zissou and crew have their adventure, which involves robbing a sealab owned by Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum, who's a perfect Anderson actor), getting raided by pirates, and going on a side trip to find lost crew members.

I've read some praise on this film, and I've read some detractions. The movie definitely has some funny moments, but I look at Rushmore and see how the plotting and the characters made the script rich with humor. With The Life Aquatic, there seems to be just that something missing. It may very well be rewarding to see it again. But it seems the problem is that there are so many characters, so many distractions, that the relationships between those characters aren't fertile ground for lots of hilarity. In Tenenbaums, you at least had a lot of family history serving as a backdrop for the dialogue. Here, the history you have is missing--Zissou's ex-wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), who is the best scientist of the crew, decides not to go (that robs us of some humor), and other key characters are new to Zissou (Ned and Jane). And of course, a very interesting character in Hennessey isn't around often enough, which is a shame. To prove what I'm talking about, see Zissou interact with long-time loyal crewmember Klaus (Willem Dafoe). It's gold almost every time.

So, is it clear what I'm trying to convey here? Films like this will likely require two or three viewings to really see it's worth, because there's so much going on. Does that make my review of it unfair? I think it does, in some ways. It's not like the movie doesn't fit in the worlds of Anderson's three previous films, it actually fits snugly, especially in its exploration of delusional characters, but I think some decisions in plotting, as highlighted above, illustrate what is wrong with the picture. Somewhere in the midst of all the people who inhabit this film there is a classic. It's just not here.

I don't know if this has anything to do with it, but instead of Owen Wilson as co-writer, Anderson teams with Noah Baumbach (who also stars, as a character named Phillip) for this one. Baumbach wrote and directed a hilarious, offbeat comedy in 1995 with Kicking And Screaming (which is the title of an upcoming Will Ferrell soccer coach movie), and he also did a movie called Mr. Jealousy which wasn't as funny, but it looked like Baumbach might be a future force. On paper, it looks like a dream pairing, but it looks more like two talented people having trouble collaborating on one vision. It's tough to make this kind of plea, but, I'd love to see the version Anderson and Wilson could have authored.


At 12/31/2004 04:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,
I'm sitting here with Mike reading your reviews. I loved this movie! Though I can't say exactly why. Was it the cutouts of the ship? Was it the inclusion of the three-legged dog? Was it the guy singing pop hits in Portuguese? I found the whole thing enchanting though long. I recommend that anyone seeing this film go in with an empty bladder.
PS Mike is getting good at merengue.


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