Quirky auteur Wes Anderson’s fourth feature film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, is his most ambitious, although I’m not convinced it amounts to much. The premise is splendid: Bill Murray as a Captain Ahab type character on a quest for revenge after his partner is eaten by a mythical shark. As per usual with Anderson’s films we are treated to a host of off-kilter characters. They all join Zissou, an oceanographer of diminishing returns, on his search for vengeance, with stop-motion sea creatures and gunfights with pirates in tow. The chief problem lies in that The Life Aquatic works quite well as a droll, amusing, breezy comedy, but I’m not sure it contains enough meat to justify its 2-hour runtime.
There’s a classic Wes Anderson father-son dynamic, provided via Zissou’s alleged illegitimate son Ned (Owen Wilson with a Kentucky accent), and a love triangle subplot with pregnant reporter Jane (Cate Blanchett, drastically elevating her mediocre material), but The Life Aquatic is, understandably, concerned with its titular character. I love, during one of the picture’s many meta-moments, how Zissou suggests a relationship subplot between he and Ned in their underwater documentary, stating that they have “real chemistry.” When juxtaposed against how resistant Steve is to embracing Ned as his son outside of their film the result amuses, builds character, and reveals the wit of Anderson and Noah Baumbach’s script. Bill Murray is fantastic here. His trademark facade of indifference and witty deadpanning of dialogue blend perfectly with Zissou’s narcissism. He, above all others (save for perhaps Willem Dafoe, who is a riot as needy crew member Klaus), is in on Wes Anderson’s joke. Zissou may be self-absorbed and full of self pity at the outset of the film, but Murray’s intrinsic likability bring a warmth and humanity to the role. It may be his best performance, and the film’s underwater climax may be his greatest moment as an actor.
Formally, this is excellent stuff. Four features in, Anderson had really mastered his craft as a visual stylist. Robert Yeoman’s cinematography is lush and vibrant, and the 50-million dollar budget allowed Anderson to orchestrate many intricate, grandiose shots. The production design is similarly inspired, with a massive, cut-out set constructed of the interior of Zissou’s vessel. The actors try. There’s an obvious passion both behind and in front of the camera here.
It’s a shame, then, that by the time Anderson introduces his key emotional moments – which are presented earnestly, beautifully, and without manipulation – they left me feeling hollow. There is so much quirky, swish-pan plodding along during The Life Aquatic‘s hefty middle portion (even with the inspired shoot out sequences) that I felt very detached from the film and its aloofness, and that’s largely due to Anderson. Zissou is interesting, but his character arc is too rough, with all of his real development coming suddenly within the last 20 minutes of the movie. I like what Anderson is saying, through Zissou, about the process of grief and the futility of revenge, it just frustrated me that well over an hour is spent meandering around. Sure, it’s often very amusing, but Anderson’s droll comedic style has rarely provided gut-busting laughs. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is funny, witty, smart, and gorgeous – by all means I have to recommend it – but the aloof, wry, and detached aesthetic act began wearing thin with an hour to go.
★★★ out of 5