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Shark Bait

 

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Wes Anderson, USA, 2004

Rating: 3.5

 

Posted: December 30, 2004

By Laurence Station

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 The 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 extraneous.

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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