Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
Wes Anderson, USA, 2004
Posted: December 30,
The budget may be bigger and the locales more exotic, but Wes
Anderson's fourth feature, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,
slots in comfortably with thematic ideas the writer-director's been
exploring his entire career. Primarily, young men attempting to find
common ground with distant/difficult father figures, and positing how
incredibly violent events can occur at a moment's notice. Aquatic
doesn't expand on these ideas, so much as it wrestles with prying
a kernel of truth from them, a belief that in all the fuzzy chaos of life
there's something deeper and more meaningful than simply existing,
consuming and dying.
Bill Murray plays Steve Zissou, an oceanographic documentary filmmaker,
and leader of Team Zissou, a ragtag bunch of semi-professional deep-sea
divers and film technicians outfitted in matching red caps and Speedos.
Zissou's latest documentary details the death of his partner and dearest
friend, Esteban (Seymour Cassel), allegedly devoured by a creature Zissou
imaginatively dubs the Jaguar Shark. Team Zissou's current adventure
entails tracking down the shark (Zissou managed to attach a homing device
to it before it swam away) and kill it. When asked what the scientific
value of murdering the creature will be, Zissou dryly replies: "Revenge."
Before Team Zissou can venture forth on its hunt, however, a few
wrinkles disrupt the group's loosely defined routine. Zissou's estranged
wife Eleanor (Angelica Huston), the grudgingly acknowledged brains of the
outfit, considers the mission folly and retreats to the island villa of
her ex-husband (and Zissou's oceanographic arch-rival), the wealthy,
condescending Alistair Hennessy (Jeff Goldblum). Concurrently, a pair of
outsiders joins the team. One, Kentucky-bred airline co-pilot Ned Plimpton
(Owen Wilson), who may or may not be Zissou's illegitimate son, decides to
invest an inheritance he received from his mother's death in the
cash-strapped team's latest project -- and, naturally, find out if Zissou
is his father. The other, Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), is a
pregnant journalist doing a cover piece on Zissou.
The hunt for the shark swiftly becomes the least of the team's concerns
as they deal with dwindling fuel issues and the rivalry between Zissou and
Ned for Jane's affections. It's not quite as emboldened as Murray's
character's competition for a fetching teacher's attentions with the young
upstart played by Jason Schwartzman in Anderson's brilliant Rushmore,
but the parallels are clear, nonetheless. The idea of the son supplanting
the father isn't as finely honed in Aquatic, primarily due to Ned's
sweet nature. He's just a nice young man who sincerely wants to believe
that Zissou is more than just a jaded, washed-up seafaring hack. Even his
attempt at a fistfight with Zissou falls flat. Murray, meanwhile, brings a
detached, almost indifferent quality to Zissou -- and for a man driven to
avenge the death of his best buddy, it would have been nice to have a bit
more Captain Ahab obsessive determination bleed through the character.
For all of its whimsy -- especially with the bright, deliberately
artificial-looking, computer-animated sea creatures -- Aquatic gets
very dark very fast. Anderson displays a predilection for shaking up his
audience just when they've been lulled into thinking they're watching a
particular type of film -- remember the alarming suicide attempt in
Royal Tenenbaums. Here, the bungling misadventures of Team Zissou
jarringly give way to an attack by a murderous band of Filipino pirates,
and later there's the wholly unanticipated death of a main character.
Certainly Anderson makes his point about life throwing a curveball when
we least expect it. Unfortunately, such stunts throw off the delicate
balance of his film. And Aquatic meanders unnecessarily, to boot.
By the time the credits roll, the big question patrons may be asking
themselves is, what sort of movie was this supposed to be? There's no
clear focus. Is it a revenge film? a father-son feature? a goof on The
Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau? Well, partly, it's all of these,
and that disjointed, grab-bag narrative approach undermines the gravity of
any of Anderson's ideas, rendering them underdeveloped or, worse, totally
Aquatic emphatically validates the idea that despite a
reasonable Hollywood-sized budget, Anderson still has complete creative
control. Which can be a wonderful thing, should the young director settle
on exactly what he has to say, or even if he wants to say anything at all.
We're still curious and waiting.
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