Published on October 25th, 2013 | by Clint Davis
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou 
Summary: Wes Anderson's most angry picture is full of the colorful sets and oddball characters we're used to from him. This sea adventure takes a long time to get started but finishes very strong.
R | 118 min.
Director: Wes Anderson | Screenplay: Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach
Starring: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett
Distribution: Buena Vista Pictures
In Hollywood history, few directors have managed to create and stick to an original style as well as Wes Anderson. Despite a string of critically-acclaimed pictures loaded with star-studded casts dating back to the late-’90s, Anderson has never achieved mainstream popularity — likely because of the oddball flavor of his films. On the other hand, bring up the director’s name among indie kids and you’ll likely hear him talked about as a God.
Almost ten years ago, Anderson teamed up with a mostly-unknown filmmaker named Noah Baumbach to pen the script of his fourth movie, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou — the result would be the most angry and uneven of his career so far.
The similarities between this film and Anderson’s previous effort, 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums, are myriad and glaringly obvious. The cast sees the returns of Bill Murray, Anjelica Huston and Seymour Cassel — as well as Anderson-regular Owen Wilson. Visual motifs are similar to that previous film as well, with a heavy use of titles to separate chapters of the story and many scenes resembling paintings, as characters in both the foreground and background will face the camera’s lens.
The Life Aquatic is a much more difficult film to watch and enjoy though. Almost none of the characters are likable, save Wilson’s optimistic Ned Plimpton and Willem Dafoe’s German-born crew member Klaus. This picture is more edgy than any of Anderson’s work as well, but it’s not becoming of his artful style. There is a good deal of bloody violence in this film and the attitude of its central character is awful, which is funny in some scenes but mostly just obnoxious after two hours of him maudlin and dropping terms like “faggot’ and “bull dyke”. This ugliness is in direct contrast to the vibrant colors present in the movie — as yellows, reds, pinks and bright blues pop off the screen in almost every scene.
In the movie, famed documentary filmmaker/sea explorer Steve Zissou has recently finished the first of a two-part film on his crew’s search for a mythical jaguar shark that ate his best friend whole. Zissou’s films have ceased being relevant and only diehard fans seem to be interested in his campy pictures anymore. After a man named Ned Plimpton (Wilson), claiming to be Zissou’s son, agrees to finance the film’s second part, the pair board The Belafonte to find and kill the shark. The ship’s crew are a rainbow mix including first mate Klaus (Dafoe), Zissou’s wife Eleanor (Huston) and a Brazilian sound engineer named Pelé (Seu Jorge) whose Portuguese renditions of David Bowie tunes make up most of the film’s soundtrack. Finally, a British journalist named Jane (Cate Blanchett) climbs aboard to write a cover story on the fledgling sea captain, providing a source of sexual and personal tension among Steve and Ned.
When we meet The Life Aquatic‘s title character, he’s little more than a shell of what we’re led to believe was an ambitious former self. He’s on the brink of retirement but the thought of slaying the creature that devoured his friend is enough to keep him at sea. Zissou’s knowledge of marine life is obvious but we get the sense that he’s been living off of the celebrity that his film’s brought him, rather than the knowledge he gained, for the past decade and change. In one memorable exchange, he’s asked by an interviewer what the scientific purpose of killing the jaguar shark would be, to which Zissou replies, “Revenge.”
This film will lose most of its audience by the time The Belafonte hits the water, however. The Life Aquatic is terribly slow to build through its first third as you’re not quite sure if this is supposed to be a comedy because you’re definitely not laughing. I remember rushing to see this movie in theaters when I was in high school because I had enjoyed Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums so much as original, quirky films but I walked away from The Life Aquatic feeling flat. The movie was marketed as a comedy, with Murray gyrating awkwardly in a wet suit over a cheesy electronica song that sounded like a preset from a 1980s Casio keyboard — but ended up making back less than half of its budget in American theaters, likely because its really not funny. This is a drama, pure and simple, and if you head into it expecting that you will enjoy the ride much more.
Performance-wise, Murray is at his most dry as Zissou, an antiquated man that world has passed by. It’s another strong showing from the legendary actor, who was just starting to become a relevant leading man again for a new generation of audiences — there are moments where Murray can genuinely make you cry with just a short line of dialogue in this film but most of the time you’re just thinking how much of an asshole he is! This is also one of my favorite roles for Blanchett, who so often has to play it prim and proper on screen. Her Jane is an expectant mother that’s been left to dry by the baby’s father and she’s not afraid to make Zissou look like a jerk on his own ship (which she does many times in the film). It’s difficult to judge performances in a Wes Anderson film because the characters are so laconic and leisurely that the actors end up looking stiff but it’s simply the style of his pictures and anyone who was even slightly overacting would look completely ridiculous in one of his casts. Instead, I would say he demands a lot of underacting from his players.
This is a movie about knowing when to walk away and knowing the limits of your own relevance. The characters are all outcasts that have found a surrogate family in the crew of The Belafonte, which manages to become a character all its own. I wouldn’t say I’d like to hit the water with the members of the Zissou Society, but watching at a safe distance has its moments.
For all the shortcomings of The Life Aquatic, it’s climactic scene is one of my favorites in film history. Throughout the story, we see countless gorgeous sea creatures (brought to life by stop motion animation master Henry Selick) but when we, along with the entire film’s cast, finally lay eyes on the majestic shark as Sigur Rós’s beautiful “Starálfur” plays, it’s a breathtaking piece of filmmaking.
If you dig quirky, stylistic films and undersea adventure, definitely give The Life Aquatic a shot. Just remember to ask Stevesy for a red hat, speedo and pair of Zissou Adidas when you board.