The Life Aquatic is an amusing trifle from Wes Anderson. I’ve long liked his movies (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) but failed to love them in ways other critics have. The Life Aquatic continues in the same vein with a stylish, quirky story about fathers and sons.
Call Me Ishmael
R for Language, drug use, violence, partial nudity
Bill Murray plays Steve Zissou, who is legally distinct from Jacques Cousteau, although any man on the street would tell you otherwise. At least his job is that of Cousteau — he’s an underwater explorer and documentary filmmaker.
As for personality, he’s a hybrid of other Wes Anderson heroes and Bill Murray roles. He’s an aging man with a mediocre career behind him. He’s losing respect from his audiences and peers. His latest undersea documentary bombs at an Italian film festival, in spite of it being the last film of his friend and mentor, who was eaten by a shark. Steve didn’t get the attack on film.
The bombed documentary was “Part 1.” Part 2, if he can get funding, will be his revenge against the “jaguar shark,” which doesn’t go over at all well with the scientific and environmentalist movie audience. Call him Ishmael Cousteau.
Along for the second expedition are his possible bastard son Ned (Owen Wilson), a journalist who respected Zissou until she met him (Cate Blanchett), and Zissou’s crew of regulars, including sad, loyal first mate Willem Dafoe and the samba-guitar troubadour (Seu Jorge) who sings exclusively from the David Bowie songbook.
Wit and Pain
Anderson’s wry sense of humor is again prevalent but is more subdued than in Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore. Little jokes, too small to be funny on their own, are packed in to the screen to make a wry, witty tapestry. Zissou’s interns come from the University of Northern Alaska, Ned is a pilot for Air Kentucky, and the mighty Zissou is often ignorant of even the most basic aquatic and maritime lore.
Bill Murray again offers his deadpan, dead-tired mug to Anderson’s movie cameras. For The Life Aquatic he brings his baggage from Lost in Translation as well, giving his character depth and resonance beyond his performance.
When Anderson has been praised before, critics have said that Anderson’s off-the-wall style disarms you and gets to you emotionally. But Anderson seems to have slipped since his last film. Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum had some pathos to him, and Anderson kept it tantalizingly close, through Royal’s real human emotional pain, but just out of reach through Royal’s selfish and undeserving persona.
Murray’s Zissou is never as serious a character as Tenenbaum. He always seems like half a joke. And while Murray does convey pain and regret, the honesty of that emotion doesn’t reach the same heights.
The Life Aquatic has fatherhood as a theme. Steve “hates fathers and never wanted to be one.” But in spite of that, he may have sired a little swimmer named Ned (Wilson), who has sought him out now that his mother has died. A pregnant journalist (Blanchett) joins them for their revenge expedition. Her child’s father is her editor, who is married to another woman. And while their relationship is rocky, maybe there’s a spark between her and Ned.
But while the theme gives the movie cohesion and a reason to exist, it doesn’t really offer any insights. Perhaps fathers will get more from it than I did, but I doubt it.
But back on the surface, the movie is funny enough and entertaining enough to earn a recommendation as a light piece of eye candy. The pacing is great. Editors David Moritz and Daniel R. Padgett found a way to tighten scenes that pushes the boundaries of convention just a little, but not too much. The sheer style of the movie — cinematography, sets, and particularly the costume design — is a delight.
The Life Aquatic is worth a look, but only as a bit of entertainment.