I saw The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou when it was in theaters – I was 12 at the time. This was my first introduction to quirky comedy and director Wes Anderson. I remember disliking it. However, half of it probably went over my head. So, after viewing and loving The Royal Tenenbaums a few columns back, I figured I should revisit the comedy starring Captain Zissou and crewmates. Six years later (almost exactly since the movie was released on Christmas 2004), I feel as if, or at least hope, I have become more worldly and understood most of Anderson’s quirk. But in the end again, I felt empty. It was like being invited to an exquisite Thanksgiving dinner with food cooked by Chef Gordon Ramsay with Bill Murray and Anderson’s usual cast of characters as guests. However, Anderson never allows you to put the food on your plate and dig in. Instead all that you are left with is an empty stomach.
Are You With Us?: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
By Ryan Mazie
November 26, 2010
The Life Aquatic tells the tale of the titular Steve Zissou, a has-been, once-famous animal documentarian. With his glory years behind him, Zissou has his passion reignited after his best friend Esteban (Seymour Cassel) gets eaten by a mythical “jaguar shark” (the name is coined by Zissou, because they were the first two words that popped in his head) in his latest documentary.
Now Zissou and his crew set out to sea for his new documentary, focusing on capturing and killing the jaguar shark. Coming on board for Zissou’s adventure is a journalist, Jane (Cate Blanchett), who is doing a piece on him and a man, Ned (Owen Wilson), who may or may not be his son.
Wes Anderson is one of the fathers of quirky cinema. However, even the master himself can sometimes make mistakes. After making waves with his first film Bottle Rocket, Disney-owned Buena Vista released Anderson’s next two films, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. The latter film was a mid-size hit and marked Anderson’s induction into mainstream audiences. Building up quite a repertoire of characters with off-sync mannerisms, Buena Vista had faith in Anderson (which probably had something to do with each film of his significantly grossing more than its predecessor) and allotted him his largest budget to date, $50 million.
More than the budgets of his previous three films combined, Anderson certainly took the opportunity to splurge, creating Zissou’s ship, the Belafonte, and designing sea creatures that look like they come from the Crayola factory by stop-motion animation.
While it sounds ambitious creating one’s own ocean, the film’s quirkiness goes from exciting to expected. Unlike the random fun of The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson loses his magic touch and makes the randomness distancing instead of inviting. Maybe that has something to do with the cold main character, Steve Zissou.
A shadow of his former self, Bill Murray plays the washed up star, spoofing French ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. With supporting turns in Anderson’s two films prior, this was a chance for Murray to be the star of the show. His first major film after Lost In Translation (well, there was one other that starred a certain orange cat, but I’ll ignore it), this was another role in Bill Murray’s melancholic character marathon. While Murray does a fantastic job nailing Zissou’s sullen demeanor, cracking jokes (or attempting to) left and right, there is never a real indicator why Zissou was a star in the first place. He is dumb, rude, and a fool; we never see another side of him for an extended period of time.
Owen Wilson shines as Steve’s possible son, Ned. Playing the part soft-spoken and earnest, Wilsonis the real heart of the film and drives the core plot. However, his character is never given much to do besides act as a device for Zissou’s reawakening. This was a step back from Anderson’s fun and intricate connection of characters in Tenenbaums where they aided one another’s journey. Blanchett is fine as a pregnant single journalist who forms a relationship with Ned, but yet again, is given little to do (fun fact: while filming, Blanchett was actually pregnant with her second child, Roman).
With such a talented trio of actors, it is Anjelica Huston and Willem Dafoe who are the scene-stealers even with marginal appearances. Huston plays Steve’s estranged wife, sharing much of the same personality except she has ambition and realism. With her ice-cold taunts to Steve, the scenes between the two are highlights. Dafoe acts as Klaus, an overly sensitive crewmate whose emotions get the best of him, even at the most inopportune times (fighting about being placed on the B team by Steve during a rescue mission is comedy gold).
Anderson directs with his normal odd stuck-in-time flair. Unfortunately, most scenes feel like rehearsal. Never are there times when a true sense of urgency is felt, even when there needs to be urgency. Take, for instance, the pirate gunfight attack scene (yes, I don’t even know how Anderson took the film there). Instead of something thrilling or funny, what we get is a tone of sandbox play between actors and fake weapons.
If there is one thing this movie can be noted for, it would be co-writer Noah Baumbach. Largely unknown, Baumbach exploded a year later with his indie darling The Squid and the Whale. Baumbach is eccentric like Anderson, but without the immense imagination, setting his characters in real world situations. Baumbach has yet to reach the heights of Anderson alone. Conversely, when reteamed with him co-writing last year’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (number ten on my list of top films that year), it was one of his highest-grossers.
With a large budget and a plum release date, Buena Vista obviously hoped to recapture The Royal Tenenbaums' success. While doing scorching business December 10th-19th while only playing in two theaters, when the film went wide on Christmas it was met with a collective “meh." Audiences flocked to another comedy instead, Meet the Fockers, headed by Tenenbaums star Ben Stiller. Zissou left theaters as quietly as it went in, grossing only $24 million ($30.8 million adjusted), less than half of what Tenenbaums did. The fan fare was limited overseas, too, with $10.8 million from the foreign box office. However, this is still Anderson’s second-highest grossing film so far.
Similar to how audiences shrugged at the film, most critics did too. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou averages a split-down the middle 51% from top critics. It also marks Anderson’s lowest rated film on the site as well. The main agreed upon thread amongst the reviews was Murray’s excellent performance that had Oscar buzz, but failed to even garner a Golden Globe nomination.
Released on DVD by Criterion and loaded with extras, Life Aquatic has its fans, but when up against Anderson’s other work, it pales and seems to have been relegated to a cult status. While not with us even though only a few years old, it seems to have been lost in the shuffle of quirky comedies that have become a generational hit.
Like the ever-breaking Belafonte drifting in the ocean, you never know when the film itself will stop drifting and finally sink from all its holes. However, with a well-intentioned captain (Anderson) and crew of fine actors, The Life Aquatic ends its journey without having to put out an S.O.S.
Verdict: Not With Us
5 out of 10