A Review of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

A person commented on my blog insisting that this film is overrated.  I disagreed and said so.  However, I did not elaborate-and that is simply inexcusable.  It is impossible to merely say something is good or bad without clarifying your stance.  So, here I am diving headfirst (I swear that pun is not intended) into Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

Wes Anderson’s films have been some of the most successful satires about the American lifestyle because he shows audiences exactly where we are going.  Every one of his characters are shown to be clouds of their former selves-forgotten memories who spread themselves far too thin to the point where they are unable to accomplish anything.  If  The Life Aquatic can be faulted for anything, it is because no new ground is broken in the Anderson universe.  Some of these figures could have been transplanted directly from The Royal Tannenbaums. I prefer filmmakers to develop-as does everyone else. To remain static is a kiss of death.  And Anderson very nearly did so.  But when your films start out as relevant and hilarious as his….is it wrong to try and change the formula?

The Life Aquatic is about Steve Zissou, a Jaques Costeau style figure who makes documentaries about his voyages.  Once a man with international acclaim, Zissou is now a man who can not fund any of his projects. In his most recent voyage, his friend was eaten by a Jaguar Shark-a creature no one believes to exist.  Zissou mounts another voyage to find this creature.  Joining him on the voyage is a man named Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) claiming to be Zissou’s son and a journalist (Cate Blanchett) who idolized Zissou in her youth.

Zissou is Anderson’s new stand in for The United States. Anderson has turned the U.S. into a nation that has stretched itself so thin that it can get no actual work accomplished (Rushmore) to a former group of geniuses that were turned into paranoid fools by outside pressures (The Royal Tannenbaums). The one fault of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is that it is not nearly as succinct an examination.  It is content to merely show a figure past its prime-again, arguably, a satire about the U.S.  But such an item is too broad-to the point of being almost easy.  A clever man should challenge himself.

Zissou is not a challenge-it is Anderson going through the motions.  Yes, Zissou is divorced.  Yes,  he still holds onto his prime by watching clips from his old documentaries.  It doesn’t really say anything.  Plus, in the end, the figure triumphs absolutely.  In the past, Anderson was content to show personal triumphs.  What does this mean?  That Zissou (and the American Spirit) still will be able to overcome its obstacles?  A noble statement, but one that is ultimately missing something.

Same that I feel it is shallow.  The aesthetic of the film certain feels epic.  Henry Sellick’s (yes, the guy who directed The Nightmare Before Christmas does all of the stop motion effects on this movie) underwater creatures feel like they belong in a world that is no more the bottom of the ocean than the surface of Mars-and thus, allows viewers to truly join in Zissou’s exploration of the unknown.  And the David Bowie songs done in Portuguese-well such things are the future.  The culture of the Western world being shared with the third world (well, yes, not technically, but you see my point) and shared back with the West in a new way.  The sets and cinematography (which show Zissou’s ship, the Belafonte, room by room) is also quite mastered.  Again, this ship takes up a universe of its own-sometimes the actors appear to be walking through rooms the size of closets and other times they are walking through ball rooms.  It’s so whimsically and expertly done that I was not mad about this inconsistency. I truly felt that, had Anderson stayed the course, he could have had his best film.

And the actor as well.  Murray does some of his best work here-playing a character so caught in his own depression he can barely move.  Wilson puts on a fairly convincing southern accent, while Willem Defoe’s character needs to be in the dictionary-as a meaning of the world sycophant.  They are all convincing and do seem to enjoy the material-for what that’s worth.

But he seems content with being broad.  Maybe this was Anderson’s attempt at being accessible.  Well, there was no need for that. Better would have been to limit Zissou into a message of, say, globalization-that would have worked.  As it stands, it is still a delightful film clouded by melancholy.  Still, I would watch Rushmore another five times before watching this one again.

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