Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/25/04 08:49:06

"A mess, but an endlessly fascinating one."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

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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