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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 28.8%
Average: 10.4%
Pretty Bad: 15.2%
Total Crap: 8%

9 reviews, 71 user ratings

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Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A mess, but an endlessly fascinating one."
4 stars

Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” is one of the most curious films that I have ever seen. On the one hand, it contains any number of wonderful elements-it is visually impressive, frequently hilarious, often touching and contains another great Bill Murray performance. On the other hand, these elements never pull together in any cohesive way, certainly not in comparison to Anderson’s earlier efforts-the modern masterpieces “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums”. After watching it again a few days after my initial screening, I found that I liked it a little more the second time around; once I realized that it wasn’t going to really add up to anything, I suppose I was able to appreciate the individual bits more fully on their own terms.

Murray stars as Steve Zissou, a documentary filmmaker, not at all unlike Jacques Cousteau, who travels the high seas on his fabulously appointed ship The Belafonte in search of subjects for his films. Once highly acclaimed, his career has recently been on the skids and his last project ended in tragedy after colleague Esteban (Seymour Cassel) was eaten by a mysterious creature known as the jaguar shark. At the end of his rope, Steve sets off with his crew, which includes his estranged wife, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), wily German first mate Klaus (Willem Dafoe) and a gaggle of unpaid interns, to hunt down the shark, which may not actually exist, and kill it. What would be the scientific purpose of that? Steve is asked. “Revenge.”

This trip also finds a few newcomers on board as well. One is a bond-company stooge (Bud Cort) that the producers insist accompany Steve to make sure he doesn’t go over-budget. Another is Jane Winslet-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), a neurotic and pregnant journalist who is pursuing Steve for a story. The most significant addition to the crew is Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a pilot for Air Kentucky who shows up one day and announces that he may be Steve’s son. Clearly Steve hopes so-within a day of meeting him, he offers Ned a job on his boat and quietly suggests that he might want to change his last name to Zissou. Ned’s presence inspires conflict with Klaus, who looks upon Steve as a father figure and who resents the interloper. There is even more conflict when both Ned and Steve find themselves attracted to Jane.

The relationship between Steve and Ned, at once father-son and mentor-protégé, is a theme that clearly obsesses Anderson-similar relationships were at the heart of “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums”-and the scenes here involving them are the best moments of the film. Their humorous scenes are indeed hilarious-both share a similar dry humor and they complement each other quite well-but they are also strong enough actors to make the trickier emotional scenes pay off as well. By now, the sight of Murray excelling in something other than a knockabout comedy is nothing new-at this point, a legitimate case could be made for him as one of the strongest American actors working today-but the surprise here is that Wilson, who has created a cottage industry for himself by playing laid-back goofballs, more than matches him in the dramatic moments as well.

The trouble with “The Life Aquatic…” is that while Anderson provided strong central stories in his previous films, his screenplay here (co-written with Noah Baumbach) is literally all over the map. Before it comes to a conclusion, we are treated here to such sights as pirates, a three-legged dog, kidnappings, a snooty arch-rival (Jeff Goldblum), surprising heroics from the bond-company stooge, a score consisting of David Bowie songs translated into Portuguese, two shootouts, two guided tours of the intricately detailed interior of the ship and a gaggle of imaginary sea creatures (provided by stop-motion animator Henry Selick) such as the sugar crab and the crayon ponyfish. At first, these distractions are amusing but eventually they begin to serve as distractions. Even towards the end, when things begin to get serious, Anderson is still rambling around to the detriment of his story-there isn’t even enough time to give an important character like Blanchett’s a strong final scene. Hey, I can appreciate a certain level of artistic self-indulgence, but “The Life Aquatic…” pushes that notion to such an extreme that even the most charitable viewers will find themselves throwing up their hands in confusion long before the conclusion.

And yet, while it doesn’t work as a whole, the film has many other things to admire. The production design is so lavishly detailed that I can see people freeze-framing certain moments just to more fully admire all of the stuff on display. Plenty of the individual moments work as well-some, like the opening scene of a Q&A session clearly inspired by Anderson’s own experiences, are hilarious and others, like the sight of Murray rescuing a tiny fish by carrying it in a champagne flute, are strikingly lovely. And despite all of the nonsense, the final scenes, especially the moment when Murray comes face-to-face with his prey, have a surprisingly strong impact.

Despite the maddening flaws, “The Life Aquatic…” is still worth a look; Anderson is one of the most fascinating of the new crop of filmmakers and even a lesser effort from him is more intriguing that the more successful works of others. However, this film does suggest that his increasingly artifice-driven storytelling approach may have finally hit a dead-end. For his next film, he needs to expand his horizons, perhaps by working on a project developed by someone else, to demonstrate that he can be the great filmmaker that he hopes to be instead of the one-trick ponyfish that he is in danger of becoming.

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originally posted: 12/25/04 08:49:06
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User Comments

7/25/14 Evil Robot Like Big Lebowski, trusts you to see humor without "laugh now" cues. Better film for it. 5 stars
3/05/14 Mallatrinho Esteban was EATEN. 5 stars
6/07/13 Robert Great film, misunderstood by many. Its absurd and has a lot of heart. 5 stars
3/04/13 Langano Love Wes, but this one is a swing & a miss. 2 stars
9/30/12 roscoe Bad and absolutely not funny, entertaining, or adventurous 2 stars
5/22/09 Alex greate movie plot the filming the effect the colors incredible the MUUUUUSIC 5 stars
1/05/09 YMC You'll get the jokes the 2nd time around esp after you've watched some scuba diving movies. 5 stars
12/20/08 brian DJ says "You need intelligence to appreciate it." I belong to MENSA and hated it. 1 stars
11/20/08 Mike You won't like it if you're close-minded or ignorant. Otherwise have fun. 5 stars
11/19/08 Matt C. I don't like movies with so few likeable characters. Quirky=good. Nonsympathetic=bad 3 stars
11/03/08 Shaun Wallner Hilarious Movie! 5 stars
10/01/08 Colin this movie is amazing 5 stars
8/27/08 DJ Best movie of 2004 by a mile. You need intelligence to appreciate it however. 5 stars
5/31/08 telkontar Hated the lack of humor, but was thrilled that I kept watching about 80% through. Strange. 4 stars
5/28/08 Ian I saw it a while ago and fell asleep, but I gave it another go and totally loved it 4 stars
5/25/08 ej Truly one of my top ten movies ever--a bit quirky for most tastes it seems 5 stars
5/20/08 Leanne i've decided that this is my favorite film that i've seen in my entire life. incredible. 5 stars
5/07/08 Ash one of the funniest/best movies ever 5 stars
4/19/08 Andrea its a great wes andreson film but you have to like strange movies 5 stars
3/11/08 brew HORRIBLE!! 1 stars
1/27/07 Tamara D. Leonard :::SNORE::: 1 stars
1/11/07 Jake This movie was really strangely amusing... 5 stars
11/04/06 MP Bartley Does Anderson ever really care about his characters or just their quirks? 3 stars
10/07/06 Dave Wyatt Possibly the Greatest Film ever made. Good in the same way as Jim Jarmusch 5 stars
9/28/06 steve their will never be another one like this one, truly great 5 stars
6/05/06 megan not good at all 1 stars
2/21/06 Jim Odd, but worth sticking with. 4 stars
1/18/06 Naka About 1/4 as good as it should have been. :( 3 stars
11/28/05 Will We rented this movie based on a "friend's" recommendation and now we know who not to listen 2 stars
7/12/05 Tom Benton Beautiful, funny, highly artistic, but ultimately confused. 4 stars
7/08/05 Charlie Very funny, except the ending sucked. I thought this was supposed to be a comedy! 4 stars
6/30/05 jim young This movie suckes the big one. glad I did not pay to see it. but my time is still gone. 1 stars
6/29/05 mwildema How horrible can something be? 1 stars
6/15/05 R from the makers of Obligatory Drug Use comes: Quirky Direction - you can't ALWAYS be funny. 1 stars
6/14/05 E-FUNK Genious. Anderson's films get better upon every release. I can watch this over and over. 5 stars
5/31/05 Mckrob fantastic! I want to see it again... 5 stars
5/27/05 Dan What the fuck did I just watch? 2 stars
5/19/05 Cindy Sheeks EXTREMELY quirky. You gotta like that kind of film to enjoy this one. 3 stars
5/17/05 ELI Liked it a lot better the 2nd time. Love the 3 legged doggie! 4 stars
5/13/05 mitch a tad overlong and a bit underdeveloped, expect to see sights unseen in an Anderson movie. 4 stars
4/18/05 Renita Long bill murray rocks 4 stars
4/06/05 Daniel So many little things to like. I loved it every time. 5 stars
4/02/05 Ben Richardson The best film I've seen in a long time. I would highly recomend this movie to everyone 5 stars
3/30/05 shreif elassaly 5 stars
3/25/05 malcontent rushmore is still Anderson's high watermark, but this one is quirky galore 4 stars
3/01/05 Graham I hate to be smug and say people are too dumb to see the pulsing emotion... and yet... 5 stars
2/14/05 Nathan Wilhite Probably will grow on me just like Wes Anderson's others 4 stars
1/12/05 clarance the cobra see it just for dafoe...fucking great! 4 stars
1/11/05 Abbath Engrossing setting, very quirky but always entertaining. 5 stars
1/10/05 jeff garbage. unique in a baaad way. 1 stars
1/10/05 bernard Worst movie ever. Stupid moronic meaningless 1 stars
1/09/05 pin It won't make the studio happy - Too sublime for mainstream 5 stars
1/09/05 burton miller marvelous, bizarre, unique 5 stars
1/08/05 Lucas Stenz best American film of 2004 5 stars
1/08/05 Daniel I hate Owen Wilson and still love the movie 5 stars
1/05/05 Dunce Some good moments but the story dragged. Dafoe's character and performance were brilliant. 3 stars
1/03/05 KingNeutron Once again Murray makes it look effortless; only problem was, all fish looked FAKE. 4 stars
12/31/04 Titus Holy disjointed and pointless movie Batman! Anybody know the Phantom Editor? 2 stars
12/29/04 Vince I think i like it as much as Rushmore. 5 stars
12/29/04 Landshark rich in depth and detail, teeming with curiosities 5 stars
12/29/04 harold unbelievably clever, hilarious 5 stars
12/29/04 burton miller bizarre, dramatic, unpredictable, excellent 5 stars
12/28/04 carleton so fine, clever, hilarious, great acting, touching, colorful 5 stars
12/27/04 nick2k definately not co-written by owen, but still great from beginning to end. & theres action! 5 stars
12/26/04 ajay my least favorite wes anderson movie. hopefully the next one's better. 3 stars
12/24/04 jcjs gees, could've been great...lacking something 3 stars
12/16/04 FrayLo glad i saw this for was quite forgettable. 2 stars
12/15/04 raivan354 SUCKS ALL ASS, not funny, BORING as drying paint 1 stars
12/08/04 Ray Pretty cool 5 stars
12/07/04 adam it was great, great wes anderson flick with some good action fans will not be dissapointed 5 stars
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  10-Dec-2004 (R)
  DVD: 10-May-2005



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