Are You With Us?: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
By Ryan Mazie
November 26, 2010
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.
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.