Thank God for Wes Anderson. Without his occasional outbursts of cinematic quirkiness, the movie world would be a much less colorful place. If his new film, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou just misses the sublime strangeness of The Royal Tenenbaums, it perhaps makes up for it by being Anderson’s most visually adventurous film to date. In fact, it’s quite sumptuous.
The movie is also a more expansive effort than we’re used to from Anderson, in that it’s designed as a lopsided adventure crossed with a parody of a self-promoting, Jacques Cousteau-like scientist/documentarian. Here we have the bargain-basement incarnation of Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), who’s more like one part Cousteau, one part Carl Denham (the fellow who found King Kong) and several parts egotistic con man.
But this is still every inch a Wes Anderson picture, from its unique observation of humanity to its casual absurdity to its unusual music choices. The basic story is a variation on his usual approach: A sort of lovable scoundrel, Zissou, has fallen on hard times and uses every trick in his well-worn book to get his way. When all is said and done, there’s only the slightest distance between Murray’s Zissou and Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum.
That’s not to say that Anderson is repeating himself; rather, he’s embellishing the theme on a type of character who appeals to him. Some critics have accused Anderson of making the same movies over and over again. Well, let them. After all, Anton Bruckner has been dismissed by some for writing not so much as nine symphonies as writing the same symphony nine times.
Anderson opens his film with Zissou presenting his latest undersea documentary — The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, no less — which is little more than the setup for his next project. The thrust of his documentary is that his partner and “best friend,” Esteban du Plantier (Anderson regular Seymour Cassel), is eaten by the mysterious “jaguar shark,” a heretofore unknown species that Zissou wants to hunt down and kill. When asked what the scientific purpose of such an undertaking would be, the answer is simply, “Revenge.” However, as things develop, it’s hard to tell whether Zissou is acting out of friendship or because the loss of Esteban deprives Zissou of the crew member who knew the Latin names of various fish.
Finding financing isn’t easy, because Zissou has come to be viewed as “old news.” But his worries don’t stop there. Wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) is growing increasingly tired of her husband’s grandstanding and philandering. His multinational crew members are skeptical of his decisions and there’s dissent from one, Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), who is feeling undervalued. His beleaguered producer (Michael Gambon) can only get him funding if he “legally swears” not to kill the shark, and wants to saddle Zissou with a journalist (Cate Blanchett) in the bargain.
As if all this weren’t enough, Zissou finds himself confronted with a young Air Kentucky pilot (“Kentucky’s a land-locked state”), Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), who may or may not be his son. Throw in his wife’s filthy rich, bisexual ex, Allistair Hennesey (Jeff Goldblum), a bond-company stooge (Bud Cort) and some pirates, and you have the complex world of the film — and the basis for Anderson’s most ambitious work to date. It’s a rich canvas, all the more so because of Anderson’s keen sense of character detail and penchant for cockeyed observation.
As with Anderson’s earlier work, the soundtrack is also a vital (if unusual) part of the film. He grounds the sound and mood of Life Aquatic in David Bowie’s early ’70s music, most of which is translated into Portuguese and performed live during the film by Brazilian Seu Jorge (City of God). Few things may sound as odd as “Oh! You Pretty Things” in Portuguese, but that’s the key to Anderson’s use of music: It’s the mood more than the lyrics that matter most of the time. Yes, when he utilizes Bowie’s own recording of “Life on Mars,” that song of alienation fits perfectly on both levels — sound and substance. But ending the film with the Bowie recording of “Queen Bitch,” a bitter song about homosexual rejection, seems to fit only because of the way it sounds (and perhaps simply because Anderson likes it).
The marvel is that it all works, but then that’s the wonder of Anderson’s films, which manage to be funny, personal and strangely moving. Rich, strange and almost inexplicably satisfying, Life Aquatic is very much a movie to see and treasure. Rated R for language, some drug use, violence and partial nudity.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke