Monday, August 3, 2015

"The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" (2004) Dir- Wes Anderson

I didn't get it.

What I remember:

I have a strange relationship with Wes Anderson. I feel like I should like his films. Yet for some reason I generally can't stand them. They're just so damned precious, you know? Sure, they all have a bit of an edge, yet I can't help but think to myself, "where's the beef?" It feels like every punch is pulled, every kiss is on the cheek, and even when the stakes are high on paper, they seem inconsequential on screen. 
Anderson's humor is supposed to be one of his signature qualities, and I know a lot of people enjoy it. For me, the jokes are all telegraphed: I know the punch lines before they are delivered. I particularly felt this way when watching "The Royal Tennenbaums". I remember thinking that when “The Life Aquatic” was released, that surely Bill Murray in the lead role would be the antidote to these falling flat gags. I mean, when has Bill Murray not been funny? As I recall, in this film.

So here's the question; is it a hip diffidence on display, or just everything being held at arm's length? Is it dry, urbane wit or just bad comic timing? Is it stiff-upper-lip WASPy cool, or just an inability to convey real emotion?

Yes, I'm aware that was three questions. You are very good at counting. 

All righty then, the real question becomes; is Wes Anderson's genius just beyond my appreciation, or did "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" suck Jaguar Shark balls? Let's watch it again and get the answer.

After re-watching:

I know, honey. Look at the map. We go your way, that's about four inches. We go my way, it's an inch and a half. You wanna pay for the extra gas? -Steve Zissou


Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is a Jacques Cousteau type television/film personality who specializes in undersea photography and wildlife. His friend and partner was eaten by a giant “Jaguar Shark”, and Steve is on a mission to find and maybe get revenge against this possibly mythic creature. Along for the voyage is his ex-wife/manager (Anjelica Huston), his bastard son (Owen Wilson), a pregnant magazine reporter on whom he has a crush (Cate Blanchett), a financial auditor sent by his Producer, and of course his crew. Complications arise from everywhere, including pirates and a rival oceanographer (Jeff Goldblum).


Maybe I missed this upon the first viewing, but I do believe that “The Life Aquatic” is an allegory for the process of filmmaking, and that Anderson is really showing us the wacky and unpredictable world of an obsessive filmmaker such as himself. Steve Zissou is a childish, petulant, courageous, jealous and ultimately likable main character. It’s a part few actors could pull off, but Murray is the perfect fit. Sadly, he doesn’t get a lot of just plain funny moments. Much of it is “I’m laughing on the inside” stuff. I think the word is “amusing”. Anderson seems to revel in these lead characters that you both love and hate. Maybe this is how he sees himself. 

What’s truly odd about this is that Anderson's films are run as tightly as Zissou’s world is loose. The entire operation on his boat, “The Belafonte”, is one bad piston from going under it seems. Compared to his competitor, Alistair Hennessey, his equipment looks like something from Popeye. In this way the allegory seems false. Anderson feels like the ultimate control freak, with every shot perfectly composed. 

So if it’s NOT an allegory, then what the hell is it? I guess it’s somewhat entertaining, but I really don’t get what the point of the movie is. Again I return to my issue with Wes Anderson. If the film doesn’t hit me emotionally, and there is no greater societal or psychological issue involved, then it better make me laugh or scare/thrill the hell out of me. I’d say these are all swings and misses, except for the feeling that Anderson is just standing at home plate with the bat resting on his shoulder. 


The two films I enjoy by Anderson are "Rushmore" and "Moonrise Kingdom", both of which fit snugly into the Anderson canon, but in both cases I connected emotionally to the material much stronger than his other films. That's funny, since you would think "The Royal Tennenbaums" is much closer to my childhood experiences than anything else. Regardless, it is the juxtaposition of Anderson's style and the subject matter which is at the root of my problem. In the case of "Moonrise Kingdom", the subjects of summer camp and puppy love really fit Anderson's style. Children see the world in much the same way that Anderson does. There is a wide-eyed innocence interlaced with a touch of the sardonic. 
The subject matter of "The Life Aquatic"; broken relationships, egotistical artists, single parenthood, delinquent fathers--these are hardly subjects for the childlike treatment we see here. Seeing the world through Anderson's lens, not to mention the music by Mark Mothersbaugh and the animation by Henry Selick, is very much a trip into the imagination of a youngster. 
As usual, I could forgive this disconnect if I found myself laughing heartily throughout. An occasional chuckle was about all I could muster. Instead of working with Owen Wilson, as he had done in the past, Anderson’s screenwriting partner this time was filmmaker Noah Baumbach. Baumbach’s films are uneven to say the least, but he is certainly a like minded soul to Anderson when it comes to innocence and irony. Basically he’s another kvetcher in the wry. 

I made that up! You like that?

Anderson's penchant for symmetry and color are beautifully on display in the "Life Aquatic". The crew's color uncoordinated pastel blue uniforms and cherry red knit hats are central to setting off the beautiful sea photography. Combined with the animated fish and creatures, the film is a feast for the eyes.

As for the ears, well if you are not a huge Mothersbaugh fan (such as I), then you do get the benefit of Brazilian star Seu Jorge singing Portuguese versions of classic David Bowie hits like "Rebel Rebel". Jorge is also in the cast as one of the crew members. I will say that Mothersbaugh's scores match the quirkiness of Anderson's stories and visuals in almost lockstep. If you like what you're watching you will probably like what you're hearing. 


As stated above, the complexity of Zissou's character is perfectly portrayed by Murray. He may not be much of a chameleon ala Hoffman, Streep or the other Hoffman, but he picks the right roles for his demeanor and humor. I almost can't imagine anyone else doing this part. Murray is kind of a plain looking version of Cary Grant.
Even at his most frazzled there is a cool relaxed undercurrent. It’s like they are participating and observing at the same time. They don’t exactly break the 4th wall, but they certainly hint at it.

The rest of the cast is a dream repertory. Blanchett and Willem Dafoe in particular are joys, and Goldblum does his part. Owen Wilson, who is probably as close to a partner as Wes Anderson has, brings his slightly whiney, slightly cocky persona to the part of the estranged bastard son. His innocence doesn’t seem even slightly forced. 

The only one-note performance in the film is, sadly, from Anjelica Huston, who is normally one of the main reasons to watch anything she is in. The role of the ex-wife and manager is one of constant disapproval. Maybe it was just written that way, but there is no sense from her that she cares for Zissou, or ever did. She never cracks a smile, and plays the whole film with the same expression on her face. What a waste!


Yes, this was definitely better upon second viewing. As I read my complaints above, it seems I am being rather picky, and not giving the film the credit it is due for it’s creative juice and phenomenal production values. Compared to some of the junk I’ve watched lately, why, it’s a great work! The cast is wonderful, the visuals and animations are superb. But seriously, couldn’t it have been just a bit funnier? All that quirk and not one side-splitting scene. I am also reminded of my freshman year film teacher, who’s reaction to my 1st short was; “So why did you make this film?” Somehow, I always feel like that at the end of a Wes Anderson movie. 

On First Look: ✭✭      On Second Look: ✭✭