The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Wes Anderson creates a highly stylized and peculiar world, which either works for you or it doesn’t. It works for me beautifully, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou deserves to take its place with Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) as a half-jocular, half-melancholy portrait of dreamers and losers. As Anderson’s career has grown and he’s been allowed more money to play with, his onscreen universe has gotten more lovingly, obsessively detailed; his movies seem to unfold in some alternate universe where Futura Bold is the dominant font and an exotic, nonexistent fish like the “rhinestone bluefin” is so taken for granted by the characters it’s used as bait.

By now, a Wes Anderson movie without Bill Murray (who has graced Anderson’s previous two films) seems unthinkable, and here he finally has the lead as Steve Zissou, underwater explorer. There was a time when Zissou’s short films about the mysteries of the deep were eagerly devoured by kids worldwide, who belonged to “Team Zissou” by way of an official Zissou Fan Club ring. Now Zissou is 52 and finds himself having to scrounge for funding, often at odds with pompous tycoon Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), who happens to be the ex of Zissou’s wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston). Zissou has a new and emotionally urgent mission: find and (possibly) kill the elusive jaguar shark that ate his old friend Esteban (Seymour Cassel) on Team Zissou’s last expedition.

Owen Wilson turns up as Ned, a Kentucky pilot who thinks Zissou might be his father. Ned was a Team Zissou fan as a kid, and still has his Fan Club ring; we’re left to imagine the bittersweet feelings of his mom, who once slept with Zissou thirty years ago, as she gave young Ned the money to send away for that ring. Wilson co-wrote all of Anderson’s films except this one (Noah Baumbach collaborated with Anderson here), and if the script is missing Wilson’s particular childlike touch, his presence as a drawling gentleman smitten with a visiting reporter (Cate Blanchett) makes up for it. His scenes with Murray resonate with the unspoken, and it’s a relief that there’s no manufactured tension over paternity — it’s never suggested that Ned is a phony out for Zissou’s money (what little he has left).

As always, Anderson goes in for precise symmetrical compositions, with people framed dead center between bookshelves or doorways. The artifice here is a little self-conscious — such as the cut-away views of Zissou’s elaborately furnished ship, the Belafonte — but never takes you out of the movie. Neither does animator Henry Selick’s work with the stop-motion sea creatures, clearly not meant to look photorealistic. At heart, The Life Aquatic is a cartoon inhabited by three-dimensional people with adult problems. There are the usual unaccountable touches that somehow feel right, like the Team Zissou member (Seu Jorge) who croons David Bowie songs in Portuguese — a restful sound — or the blue highlights in Anjelica Huston’s hair, or the three-legged dog left behind by some Filipino pirates, or Willem Dafoe as an inept German shipmate who loves Zissou like a father and resents the intrusion of (possibly) a real son.

The problem, as with Wes Anderson’s other films, is how to sell it to the masses (especially The Life Aquatic, which at $50 million is Anderson’s most pricey endeavor to date). The commercials emphasize Bill Murray’s deadpan wit and some broad humor, but moviegoers will find Murray playing a near-dislikable character, a blowhard too used to getting his own way to notice that not everyone shares his devotion to himself. And the humor here is bone-dry, without even the surefire sight gags of the otherwise rather glum Royal Tenenbaums. Yet Murray triumphs here by being true to Zissou’s melancholia, and so does Anderson. The Life Aquatic is an odd, entrancing creature that of course got overlooked at the crowded holiday multiplex and at awards ceremonies, but its appeal, I think, will be more timeless than that. 5

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