Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Posted by CinemaPsycho on January 4, 2005

Directed by Wes Anderson/Written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach/starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum/Touchstone Pictures

A famous oceanographer goes through a midlife crisis and searches for the shark that killed his friend.

Before you read this review, I think it’s important to know where I’m coming from in regards to Wes Anderson. I’m not a huge, ranting-lunatic fan of the guy’s films, but I’m not one of his detractors either. I have at least liked all of his films and loved at least one of them (The Royal Tenenbaums, which I’m convinced is a misunderstood masterpiece, though I’ll be damned if I could tell you why). So when I started seeing negative reviews and dismissive mentions of his latest film, I immediately thought, “oh, well obviously they didn’t get it. They don’t understand his unique vision and deadpan sense of humor.”

Then I saw the movie, and I realized that I didn’t get it either. Oops.

The Life Aquatic is not a really bad film. I wouldn’t call it an unmitigated disaster like some people have. There’s enough to like in this movie that it’s almost worth recommending for an adventurous moviegoer. But ultimately, I walked out disappointed in it. It’s not because I had high expectations. It’s because I had any expectations.

The funny thing is, it’s actually interesting to watch for about half an hour or so. Many of the Anderson trademarks are there: eclectic ensemble cast, detailed production design, cool semi-obscure rock song choices. It feels completely like an Anderson film, but with a refreshing retro-futuristic look. So far so good.

Then you realize that it doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere, that you don’t care about any of the characters, and there doesn’t seem to be any point to anything that’s happening on screen. Uh-oh. It just slowly starts to sink, like a scuttled ship, and it never quite recovers.

The entire movie seems unfocused and scattered, like most of the scenes were written as an afterthought. It’s like they had an idea – “let’s make a movie about an oceanographer, like Jacques Cousteau!” – and never bothered to actually develop that idea into something worth watching. It all feels like a giant shrug, 105 minutes of “well, that happened.”

The supposed theme of the movie isn’t really developed at all. We see Steve Zissou (Murray) going through what is apparently meant to be a midlife crisis, but it’s never resolved in any kind of satisfying way. He seems like the exact same guy at the end of the movie that he was at the beginning. I’m not saying that every movie has to have its lead go through some standard bullshit three-act “character arc” that completely changes his personality (we all know how unrealistic that is), but c’mon, give us some reason for having sat through all this. What’s the point? If he didn’t learn anything about himself, what are we supposed to learn from him?

It doesn’t really help that Zissou, for much of the movie, is an unapologetic, careless bastard who occasionally says something funny. I mean, throughout the movie he makes stupid, reckless decisions that lead his crew into potential danger and catastrophe. This is the guy we’re supposed to be rooting for? No wonder he’s going through a midlife crisis – he’s a complete fuck-up! And his motive of revenge against an unthinking animal (OK, mammal, fish, whatever) hardly justifies almost getting his entire crew killed.

But this is all meant to be a big laugh somehow. What’s so amusing about an idiot leader who ignores the warning signs of impending disaster and risks the lives of his loyal followers? (Come to think of it, this may have been meant as a political allegory – but I doubt it was that well thought out.) Then when Murray suddenly turns into an indestructible Rambo-like hero in “action scenes” (and I use that term loosely) that play like a bad SNL spoof of ‘70’s Quinn Martin-style TV cop shows, and none of this is revealed to be a dream or fantasy sequence, you start to wonder what the hell Anderson and company were thinking with this stuff. It may have been an attempt at absurdist humor, but it’s really just head-scratchingly weird. I mean, come on…really? This is what they came up with? That’s the best they could do?

That’s exactly how random and arbitrary most of this movie feels. It’s the kind of movie that you could probably watch the scenes on DVD in random order, and you’d come out with something almost as coherent and satisfying as what takes place on screen. It’s not a case of defying standard plot expectations – it’s a case of Anderson and Baumbach making bizarre story decisions that just don’t quite work.

I’ll avoid revealing any major spoilers here, but to give you an idea of how oddly disjointed this movie feels: towards the end something bad happens to one of the major characters (I won’t say what or who). Instead of being shocking or even surprising, it just comes off as…misguided and pointless. It’s so completely out of nowhere that it’s not even moving (since we don’t care about any of the characters anyway). It’s just…puzzling.

Why did this have to happen to this character? It doesn’t seem to fit with the theme of the movie at all. It doesn’t provide any insight or illumination on anything that happens. It just feels like an arbitrary choice, like they pointed at the cast list and said, “that one”. Again, what’s the point? Yes, I get that the whole voyage was motivated by a similar event. But that just points out the folly of the entire enterprise, doesn’t it? (And THEN – they never achieve what they set out to do in the first place!) How was this character’s sacrifice meaningful in any way? It’s just pointless, and by the “triumphant” ending it’s played as irrelevant.

Honestly, a true “happy ending” to this movie would’ve been for Team Zissou to be shut down permanently and its leader brought up on criminal charges. But that wouldn’t be “funny”, now would it? If it sounds like I’m taking all this way too seriously, I’m really not. The movie really is this baffling. It’s like rooting for the Titanic to hit that iceberg.

It doesn’t help that much of the cast seems stranded by the material. Wilson seems to be concentrating on keeping up his odd Southern accent too much to actually be engaged by his character. As dead-on perfect as she was in The Aviator, Blanchett seems completely mannered and affected here. Huston, Dafoe, Goldblum, Bud Cort – these talented actors are all just wasted. They don’t get to actually DO anything that might be considered funny or interesting. They’re just there as quirky presences, like pieces of furniture that occasionally talk.

And then there’s Murray. He’s the whole show here, and it’s his exasperated drollness that keeps the movie from completely collapsing under its own weight. He gets the few scattered laughs there are to be had here. Listen, I grew up watching the guy, and I love him like you love your weird uncle. But these depressed, morose middle-aged characters he’s been doing are already becoming tiresome. We know he’s capable of playing this role – he did it to perfection in Lost in Translation. Does that mean he has to be stuck playing Mr. Sad Clown for the rest of his career? I’m starting to miss the classic Murray, the sarcastic but friendly slacker, the supreme wiseass with a twinkle in his eye. Can we get that guy back, please? Once in a while? Or at least give him something else to do.

Anderson doesn’t seem to grasp that there’s a difference between saying, “this is a movie about an oceanographer going through a midlife crisis”, and actually making a movie that DEALS with that subject. A movie that tells you what it’s about, and then does nothing about it, is not the same as making a movie ABOUT something. The whole storyline seems like a backdrop for Anderson to make jokes that five people will get. Which is fine, but why bother to tell a story at all then? His heart’s obviously not in it.

It’s not like you actually learn anything about oceanography from watching this film. Since it all takes place in Anderson’s absurd little fantasy world where the rules of logic apparently don’t matter, nothing has to be “real”. Which means he can just make shit up whenever he wants, and doesn’t have to do any research about the subject. If you’re looking to experience a fantastical dream world, I suppose the movie does the job. But I would’ve actually liked to see how this stuff is really done, what these ships and designs actually look like, how professionals in this field do their jobs. I know it’s a comedy, but come on, how many movies about oceanography are there? They could’ve just as easily made Zissou a fictional film director struggling to make a sci-fi epic on location. A guy shows up claiming to be his son, a reporter comes on the set to write an article, the crew gets sick of him and threatens to mutiny…you’d have pretty much the same movie.

Yeah, Henry Selick’s animation is really cool and creative. But there are probably some fascinating things down in the real ocean. Why make up stuff when you don’t need to?

I’m sure that Anderson’s die-hard fans will shake their heads at all this and say, “he just didn’t get it.” That’s fine. I wouldn’t blame them. But you should know that I didn’t wander into this movie by mistake. I’m exactly the target audience for a film like this. I’m one of the minority who’d go to this movie over a Meet the Fockers or a Fat Albert. And if I had to do it over again, I’d make that same choice. I’d much rather see something that at least tries to be different than the usual easy-laughs, cheap-sentiment claptrap. I don’t regret seeing it. I just wish it had been better.

I don’t think I’d want Anderson to abandon his signature style and start making movies about buddy cops or talking dogs. He obviously has a unique vision, and I admire that. But even the greats strike out every now and then. It’s not a crime. I sincerely hope the next one’s as good as we’ve come to expect.

Until then, we’ll have to settle for a guy singing David Bowie songs in Portuguese. I don’t know what it means or why it’s in there, and I probably never will. Nice try though.

** 1/4/05

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