The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Mildly surreal deep sea travelogue adventure. Murray excels yet again.

Released in 2004, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 01 Mar 2005 by Scott Morris
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The Life Aquatic, the latest film from Wes Anderson is so typically Wes Anderson that there's little point describing it to anyone who's familiar with The Royal Tenenbaums or Rushmore. If you liked them, you'll like this, which will likely be all the recommendation required. There's liable to be a fair few peeps unfamiliar with his prior works, as while they're hardly obscure they certainly weren't hugely mainstream movies. The presence of the newly resurgent Bill Murray gives this a thrust into the limelight, which poses an interesting problem for me. Namely trying to explain exactly why Anderson's movies are so pleasing.

Which is a pest, because I'm not altogether sure myself. Ah well, let's begin with the factual gubbins before trying to nail down the intangibles. Steve Zissou (Murray) is an oceanographer / filmmaker in the Jaques Coustea mode, although he's perilously close to running aground on the rocky shores of public indifference. A disastrous last outing sees his best friend and fellow member of Team Zissou Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel) eaten by a hitherto unknown predator Zissou names the Jaguar Shark. His latest adventure is simple, track down and kill said Jaguar Shark. Financing this is proving difficult, producer Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon) coming up short on the readies. Fortuitously, what would seem likely to be Zissou's estranged son Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) makes himself known. Donning the standard issue red hat and Speedos, he joins team Zissou and pumps his money into their latest escapade.

Zissou's wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) isn't crazy about this idea, straining their relationship past breaking point. Zissou's bankers demand that the bring along an overseer or stooge Bill Ubel (Bud Cort) on the journey to keep things on budget. Mildly pregnant journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) is perhaps the last member of the media with any interest left in Zissou and tags along at Drakoulias' insistence. The Team Zissou faithful including Bowie localising troubadour Pelé (Seu Jorge) and needy oddball, even by this films' standards, Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe) head off on the Jaguar Shark trail which winds up including robbery, kidnapping, pirates, daring rescues and dynamite. Which sounds action packed enough, although it's never really the focus of the flick.

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Is it just me or do The Killers sound like they've hired the lead singer of Shed Seven? Sorry, got distracted for a second. How about that local sporting team anyway? What? Stop stalling? Oh alright. It's a fair cop. I'm now reaching the point where I traditionally have to explain why I like this film, why you might like this film and why it's worth your local monetary unit. Given that more than any other film it seems to divide critics and more than likely audiences into camps of love and hate, I need to do a good job of said explanation. This does not tally with my current ability or fatigue levels, but let us plunge on regardless.

Regardless of everyone else in the movie, no matter how talented, one thing is near enough vital to your enjoyment of The Life Aquatic; a respect and preferably a love for Bill Murray. If ever you should wonder why wars, genocide, torture and Michael Howard still exist in this world it's simply to balance out the exceptional good karma and sheer brilliance of Bill Murray. I say without a hint of exaggeration that he's a million times funnier than every other comedian on the planet multiplied together. Can't back that up with paperwork, mind. While it'd please me to write a few hundred words on his genius it's not helping me explain anything. Of late, he's been doing his best to raise world-weary melancholia to an artform, and The Life Aquatic continues this trend to startling effect. It's a captivating performance of a man feeling as though the world had given up on him, and seems ready to give up on the world. Truly a haunted and haunting performance.

It's one that overshadows the rest of the cast, sadly. There are flashes of inspiration, often from Owen Wilson although he doesn't establish the same obvious chemistry with Murray we've seen in many top class prior performances. Still, that's part of the story so has to be forgiven. I know I'm in something of a minority on this one but I've never seen any justification for the fuss about Cate Blanchett, and her accent here (while not wildly unrealistic) is as pleasant as Hitler. A rare appearance from Jeff Goldblum as Zissou's oceanographer nemesis, the dashingly popular Alistair Hennessey proves something of an ace in the hole, although many of the more obvious comedy moments are granted to Willem Dafoe. Playing a character more like a needy eight year old than an aging German engineer, if nothing else he provides a few gags to chuckle at for those not otherwise enjoying the vague surreality of Anderson's weavings.

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It's actually illegal to comment on this film without mentioning the words 'quirky' and 'whimsical' at least once each, so that's that quota filled. Yes, Zissou's equipment is stylised to the point of impracticality. Yes, there's some highly suspect sea creatures kicking around in the film, generally realised by slightly suspect CG. No, none of this is in any way detrimental as long as you're buying into Zissou's character. This film is far more about who Zissou is than what he does, although it's not going to do anything as crass as sit and tell you this. It's a film where character development comes as much in twitches, glances and soulful looks than through any dialogue.

Narratively, it's something of a shambles. It has more in common with a road trip than anything else, which would put it in competition with Sideways than anything else. That's not a battle that The Life Aquatic is equipped to win, but there's still a lot to like here. It's more about nuance than grand gestures, the atmosphere generated by many factors so tiny you may even miss them. Quite why watching Team Zissou jog down the beach with Glocks holstered around their thighs becomes hilarious rather than odd is something that I (rather obviously) find difficult to explain. Were The Life Aquatic a book, I feel the best bits wouldn't have actually been written and sort of exist in the space between the lines. It's a subtle and delicate film, the sort that really has no business existing in such a harsh world.

I'm not sure I've nailed down any of those intangibles I spoke of earlier any better, but at least it's a little better than saying 'I like this film. 4/5'. As ever when the appropriate words desert me, I fall back on the laws of probability and cold hard maths. As stated, you're liable to either love or hate this film. Thus, there's a one in two chance that by ponying up a fiver to see The Life Aquatic you end up seeing a film that will gravitate towards the top of your 'most bestest film ever' list. Could you have said that going into most of the other movies you've seen lately? It's a risk, but there's a great reward at the other side.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Wes Anderson
Cast list:
Bill Murray (Steve Zissou)
Owen Wilson (Ned Plimpton)
Cate Blanchett (Jane Winslett-Richardson)
Anjelica Huston (Eleanor Zissou)
Willem Dafoe (Klaus Daimler)
Jeff Goldblum (Alistair Hennessey)
Michael Gambon (Oseary Drakoulias)
Bud Cort (Bill Ubell)
Seu Jorge (Pelé dos Santos)
Seymour Cassel (Esteban du Plantier)