Welcome to the third edition of DVR reviews. Twice a week I review a film that was overlooked, underrated, or just a film you might only catch on cable on a boring Saturday afternoon. Last week I looked at the action comedy Kick-Ass 2 and the Cohen brothers' 2004 black comedy The Ladykillers (which you need to check out if you haven't already). Today I look at the 2004 comedy drama The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
No other director's films strike me in the same way Wes Anderson's movies do. The first film I saw from him was the wonderfully crafted, unjustly underrated animated film Fantastic Mr. Fox, a brilliant stop motion animated adaption of Roald Dahl's children's novel. The movie's striking visuals, sharp dialogue, dry humor, and Alexandre Desplat's amazing soundtrack made it one of my favorite animated films of all-time immediately. Anderson's typical style of directing translates uniquely into witty, adventurous, and quirky tales which lightly deal with very serious themes such as family issues (The Royal Tenenbaums), love triangles (Rushmore, Life Aquatic), and murder (The Grand Budapest Hotel). The way in which his films are crafted make for very interesting conversation and is indescribable. However, to me Wes Anderson movies are a mixed bag. They are indeed very charming and intelligent, but often lack a clear tone or structure and the delivery of the dry humor isn't always excellent in execution. At times the tone, ironic humor, and visuals fit together perfectly (Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Grand Budapest Hotel, in my opinion his best film), at other times they struggle to reach a perfect equilibrium but still provide a heartfelt film (Rushmore, my second favorite film from him), and then there's a middle ground where The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou seems to fit (I still need to view Anderson's films' Bottle Rocket, The Darjeeling Limited, and Moonrise Kingdom).
A certain absurdist sense of reality prevails throughout Life Aquatic as the plot is derived from the intentions of an oceanographer (Bill Murray as the film's titular character) to seek vengeance on the "jaguar shark" that ate his partner. Murray delivers his usual deadpan style of humor present in Anderson's films (His performance in Rushmore my favorite to date) adequately enough to keep us interested in the character. Along for the ride are Zissou's ex-wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston, The Royal Tenenbaums), his possible son Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson, a frequent Anderson collaborator), and a pregnant journalist named Jane (the always phenomenal Cate Blanchett). Also included are Klaus, a member of Zissou's crew (William Dafoe), and Alistair Hennessey, Zissou's nemesis (Jeff Goldblum). So given the great cast (Murray and Goldblum being my 2 of my favorites), I went into this film with great expectations. What I received was a very unique, peculiar viewing experience.
"My rational mind informs me that this movie doesn't work. Yet I hear a subversive whisper: Since it does so many other things, does it have to work, too? Can't it just exist? Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" is the damnedest film. I can't recommend it, but I would not for one second discourage you from seeing it" (Ebert 2004 review). Roger Ebert's two-and-a-half star review of the film captured my thoughts almost exactly. Life Aquatic doesn't know exactly what it wants to be. It wants to be witty and quirky, but the delivery struggles to stay on point and connect with the narrative. It certainly wants to be fun, given the premise and Bill Murray's legendary stature, and succeeds with oddly placed action sequences and stop-motion animated sea creatures. However, these elements seem very out of place in a dry narrative. Murray and the cast look to be slightly above going through the motions as Zissou's journey to track down the shark is fairly uneventful and the mix between drama and comedy is off-centered. Life Aquatic only resonates with the viewer in the form of the question, "what did I just watch?"
The viewing experience itself can only be enjoyed if you are willing to take the film for what it is. An quirky tale of adventure delivered in a very deadpan manner. The humor lacks the irony and wit of The Grand Budapest Hotel, but is very clever at times. The humor is more dark than most of Anderson's films as death and danger are prevalent throughout the movie, but the tone retains its campiness despite the subject matter. The camera footage of Zissou's partner being eaten (shown in the first few minutes) is slightly comic given the surreal circumstances and Murray's hilarious back and forth with the crew member. "He was bitten?" "Eaten!" The reaction to the tragedy highlights the excellent delivery of Murray. Visually, the movie is almost flawless. Henry Selick (who went on to direct Coraline) does a great job with the stop-motion animation of the sea creatures, particularly the tiger shark, which adds a charm to the movie reminiscent of Fantastic Mr. Fox. The production done on the boat which Zissou and his crew set sail on ( the Belafonte) is one of the best aspects of the film. A walk-through showing the many rooms of the vessel is possibly the film's best scene.
Cinematically, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is nearly perfect which makes it a shame that the film struggles with its tone. Murray delivers the best performance while the rest of the cast falters around, struggling to give the character-driven story heart. Owen Wilson gives a pretty average performance, but isn't fully convincing as a man seeking his possible father's acceptance. Huston is good enough while Goldblum, Blanchett, and Dafoe give solid supporting roles. Unfortunately none of these characters really stand out and Murray looks like he's carrying most of the weight. The film's main problem that keeps it from being great is that the deadpan style doesn't really fit the narrative. Such an intriguing premise could use a more organized balance of comedy and adventure which Life Aquatic lacks. It could use a more clear structure which would allow the actors and Anderson's direction to shine. The action sequences are entertaining (also similar to The Grand Budapest Hotel's), but are a very weird mix of intense, humorous, and surreal.
Try to go into The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou with few expectations and you should enjoy this visually striking, jumbled mess of adventure that only shows hints of Wes Anderson's brilliance. (I'm willing to give this film a second viewing in case there's something I missed)