Most Reviews of Wes Anderson's Latest Have Missed the Point

Black & White | February 3, 2005
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Directed by Wes Anderson. Cast: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Angelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, Seu Jorge, Bud Cort. Rated R; 1 hour, 58 minutes.

In so many words—often too many—a lot of film critics are calling Wes Anderson's latest film a self-indulgent near miss. This time around, Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) goes too far with the trademark irony, quirkiness, and arch formality that characterize his previous films, or so goes the wisdom in critic's circles. A common complaint is that the film's loose narrative structure is constantly on the verge of collapse—or that it's "lost in a sea of whimsy," "sinks like an anchor," and sundry other weak nautical metaphors. Taken as a whole, reviews of The Life Aquatic formulate a single objection to Wes Anderson that goes basically thus: He wore the same outfit to last year's Christmas party, and how dare he show up this year flaunting a jacket and tie that none of us had the nerve or style to wear ourselves. Woody Allen suffered similar abuse after making Stardust Memories, and he weathered it just fine. Anderson will, too.

With that out of the way, we can commence marveling at Anderson's latest wonder. The film concerns Steve Zissou (Bill Murray, about as world-weary as we are likely ever to see him), an oceanographer of highly questionable skill and knowledge who films his adventures in order to pay for haphazard, if amazing, seafaring romps. These adventures take place onboard the Belafonte, a revamped submarine hunter manned by Team Zissou, all of whom wear red caps à la Jacques Cousteau, ocean-blue swim wear, and identical pajamas with the Team Zissou logo. (Jacques Cousteau's vessel was the Calypso; Harry Belafonte sang calypso tunes, and that's in-joke Number 207 of this joyously indulgent enterprise.) Money is always a problem, especially as procured/provided by his shady producer (London stage veteran and scene stealer Michael Gambon). Zissou's haphazardness and dangerous self-absorption have pushed his crew into a "rumbling 'neath the decks" state of mind, and his latest film still doesn't have a backer. That's a real snag, because the film will afford Zissou the opportunity to hunt down a "jaguar shark," the beast that consumed Zissou's mentor and ocean-going companion Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel) during the filming of Zissou's recent festival entry, Adventure No. 12: 'The Jaguar Shark' (Part One). Zissou informs a bewildered festival audience that the scientific purpose of the second pursuit is revenge.

During the festival, which takes place in a lovely, run-down Italian coastal village populated by the super-rich, Zissou learns that he may or may not have an illegitimate son (Owen Wilson, not playing Owen Wilson), while also noticing that his estranged wife (Angelica Huston) may or may not be taking up with her ex-husband (Jeff Goldblum, who should have had more scenes in this picture). That ex-husband is a Richard Branson type with a penchant for oceanography, and Goldblum plays him as a too-smooth monster in flip flops and a very expensive terry robe. It's a brilliant turn, just as Cate Blanchett's gum-smacking, very pregnant journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson is an adorable surprise. Willem Dafoe is touching and hilarious as a high-strung member of Team Zissou; his hero-worship of Steve Zissou borders on a schoolboy crush, and his Teutonic accent and mannerisms make him even more ridiculous.

If it sounds at this point as if the plot hinges on the mere presentation of remarkable characters, that's because these detailed character studies derive from the film's main metaphor: exploration. After all, we don't go under the sea to follow the narrative trajectory of the life of an octopus. We are there to find out what that creature is like. Wes Anderson brings us onboard the Belafonte to learn what Steve Zissou is like, and it takes about ten minutes to understand that Zissou is a lot like a spoiled teenager. He smokes pot when the smallest crisis emerges, he exhibits an almost callous disregard for the welfare of the creatures his crew encounters, and the most sophisticated technology on his vessel is devoted to the spa and the kitchen. When Team Zissou secretly raid Goldblum's massive sealab installation for equipment during an emergency, Murray grabs a cappuccino machine. This establishes a companion metaphor (childishness and childhood) for the matter of exploration, which in this case is more like examination. If the unexamined life is not worth living, as one wise fellow suggested long ago, then for Steve Zissou the unexplored ocean is not worth sailing

But this time he's going deeper, because there's something bad out there/in there. As he continues this examination, he learns more slowly than the rest of us that he's got no ballast, as it were, where maturity and responsibility are concerned. Indeed, as the Belafonte's mini-submersible drifts into uncharted depths, Zissou mentions that eleven and a half was his favorite age. That's why the stop-motion-animated sea creatures that swim in and out of frame have a place in this "real" story. With their absurd physical features and obviously made-up names (sugar crab, Hermés eel, rhinestone bluefin), this marine life is exactly what an eleven-year-old kid might imagine lives 20,000 leagues under the sea. It also reveals why the only festival-goer who "gets" Steve Zissou is the little boy who brings him a seahorse (a "Crayon Pony-Fish") captured alive in a plastic bag.

Later we learn that Zissou had corresponded with Ned (Owen Wislon) via fan club letters, in which Ned asks Zissou if he ever wished he could breathe underwater. "Yes, always," he replies. That's the hope and dream of any boy fascinated with the aquarium in his room. But Zissou suspects that exploring a life is tantamount to facing reality—that's not a jaguar shark he wants to destroy; it's a life misspent via sustained adolescence. Eleanor Zissou ("the brains behind the organization"), is onboard the submersible too, and upon viewing the mammoth jaguar shark she says, "It's beautiful." Zissou replies, "Yeah, it's pretty good, isn't it?" The business of maintaining a child's sense of wonder without becoming an overgrown brat is a burden. But discounting adulthood because the fun has to be reined in might be the ultimate ingratitude. That Murray conveys much of this with mere facial expressions is why we run to the theater to see him these days. At the film's conclusion, Zissou lifts the little boy with the seahorse onto his shoulders and carries his burden out of the festival auditorium and down the narrow village street. The symbol is worth celebrating and savoring, which may be why the final scene is shot in slow motion.

All of this might be grim stuff were it not so dazzling and charming in its presentation, which cleverly and painstakingly recalls the work of Disney, Charles Addams, Orson Welles, and Ray Harryhausen, with more than a little James Bond and Jerry Lewis thrown into the mix. The soundtrack is also a great big treasure chest, with Mark Mothersbaugh providing a weird little score while Seu Jorge, playing the Team Zissou explosives expert, does acoustic versions of practically the entire early '70s David Bowie catalog—in Portuguese. Who knew that "Rebel Rebel" was a bossa nova gem? Stunning locations are captured by cinematographer Robert Yeoman, and the supersaturated color of various Team Zissou films is a delightful retro flourish. Wes Anderson has always seemed like the kid next door who not only had all the coolest toys and playsets in the catalog; he seemed also to exhibit a bit more imagination in playing with them. Some critics resent that, especially since Anderson is also like one of those kids who invited you over to play G.I. Joe, but only on his terms. (The "making of" features on DVDs of Anderson's films sometimes reveal this unappealing aspect of his personality.)

But hold on a second. Anderson admits to, and consequently justifies, his indulgences throughout all of his pictures with not-very-subtle winks and nods to viewers. This method is expanded in The Life Aquatic, because the story deals with a character who makes movies solely to enable his childish indulgences. Steve Zissou might be Wes Anderson 25 years from now during a mid-life crisis. In any event, the clues to the theme of this odd film crash across the screen in waves. By the time pirates take over the Belafonte and Zissou leads his crew on a wild, bullets-flying rescue mission, we can't object to the sheer improbability of what transpires. The picture leaps into the realm of the fantastic in a deliberately clumsy way. The climax is no more convincing than the edited, re-shot, and staged events of Steve Zissou's "documentaries." But this is how kids imagine the world.

Too bad it's not how more filmmakers imagine the possibilities of cinema. A few have, and a few continue to do so. This kind of movie puts Anderson in a category with Tim Burton, Orson Welles, David Lynch, (early) Walt Disney, Federico Fellini, and Jean Cocteau.

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