Today’s cinema adventure: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Wes Anderson’s 2004 feature about a legendary oceanographer and his misadventurous quest for the giant “jaguar shark” that ate his partner. Featuring a full array of Anderson’s trademark elements- and a cast which includes several members of his usual company of actors- it met with a mixed and bewildered response from critics, which probably played a large part in its failure at the box office, but received praise for the performance of its star, Bill Murray, and managed to earn a number of award nominations despite the lukewarm reception. Though Anderson’s former writing partner, Owen Wilson, appears in a major role, this film marked the director’s first screenplay collaboration with fellow indie-filmmaker Noah Baumbach, a pairing which would later continue with the much more successful animated feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Drawing its obvious inspiration from the real-life career of famed marine adventurer and inventor Jacques Cousteau, the plot concerns itself with the personal and professional tribulations of the title character as he embarks upon a mission to exact revenge on the possibly non-existent fish that killed his long-time colleague. His long career, once marked by the popularity and success of the documentary films he produced of his exploits, has fallen into decline, while his personal life is in similar disarray with the onset of a mid-life crisis and the collapse of his marriage. When his expedition is joined by a young man who is possibly his son, rivalries are sparked among the crew and Zissou finds himself struggling with his own fear of emotional connection, as things become increasingly complicated by the presence of a pregnant reporter, an incursion of marauding pirates, and the interference of a rival oceanographer. As Team Zissou journeys the seas in search of their elusive quarry, their leader must work out his personal issues as he scrambles to prevent the failure of the mission, which may be his last chance to save his faltering reputation. True to Anderson’s form, the insular scenario provides a metaphoric framework for the emotional and psychological landscape of his characters, and as they negotiate the conflicts and obstacles of the plot, they are really working to resolve their own dysfunctional relationships with the world and themselves; and, as always, he draws on collective pop cultural memory to provide a distinctively quirky backdrop for his deadpan psychodrama.
In this case, that backdrop is designed to specifically evoke the juvenile imagination of the late-mid-century generation he represents, a world resembling a sort of mash-up between The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and Jonny Quest; Zissou and his crew are not merely sea-going scientists and filmmakers, they serve as a sort of merry band of adventurers, facing intrigue and danger as they catalogue specimens, navigate unprotected waters, and weather the fickle opinions of the scientific community, film critics and their financial backers. The sea life they encounter on their voyage is as fanciful and implausible as the names of the exotic places to which they travel, emphasizing even more the deliberate ridiculousness of the premise, and giving the whole film the air of a made-up adventure game played in the back yard after a Saturday morning cartoon marathon. This pre-adolescent sensibility serves Anderson’s purpose in a two-fold way, suggesting thematic ideas that figure prominently in his tale. It allows him to offer up a tongue-in-cheek exploration of the gap between the brave promise of the nuclear age and its failure to reach fruition in the reality of modern adult life. Team Zissou’s adventurous voyage is a far cry from the optimistic visions portrayed in the treasured boyhood TV fantasies from which he has derived his inspiration; their highly-trained dolphin scouts are uncooperative and useless, they are saddled by their backers with a “bond company stooge,” and their space-age gadgetry has become broken-down equipment. Though it’s a running source of humor throughout the movie, this pageant of ironic de-mystification carries a decided tone of sadness and disillusionment that undercuts the comical posturing and lends an unexpected poignancy to the proceedings; and appropriately so, for it informs the other major theme of the movie. The Life Aquatic is a film about boys who won’t- or can’t- grow up, a phenomenon which seems to center on issues of fatherhood; Zissou’s ambivalent feelings towards his own father figure are merely hinted at, but his failure to resolve them are evident in his self-indulgent life of adventure, in which he continually pursues the elusive, whether it be a mythic sea monster or an unattainable woman, while he proudly and flagrantly disregards authority- but simultaneously seeks approval from the establishment it represents. His stunted emotional development is challenged by the arrival of another man-child, seeking his own validation from a father he never knew- a role Zissou is ill-prepared and unsuited for, but finds himself longing to fill. Through their shared journey on and under the sea- with all its richly symbolic implications- they undergo a shared rite of passage to manhood, and in their belated transition to maturity they find the potential to transform their world of compromised hope and sold-out ideals back into the enlightened future promised by the bright dreams of the past. Meanwhile, of course, the film’s few women wait, not always patiently, while the boys play at their adventure, hoping that the consequences of the game are not too dire, serving as mothers or lovers, or more accurately, both.
In presenting his male-centric delayed-coming-of-age tale, director Anderson utilizes all his now-familiar tricks of the trade: his meticulously tidy shot composition, his primary color palette (with an emphasis, this time, on yellow and blue), his visual influences drawn from a retro-hip nostalgic sensibility, his unapologetic use of obvious symbolism drawn from his own personal mythology, and, of course, his heavy use of vintage pop and folk music- here given a new twist by the inclusion of several Brazilian acoustic renditions of classic David Bowie tunes, most of them performed live onscreen by cast member Seu Jorge, adding to the film’s oddball blend of the exotic and the familiar. Another Anderson trademark, his affinity for montage and whimsical graphic illustration for setting up key points, is here given a particularly spectacular expression through the use of a life-sized cross-section set to represent Zissou’s boat (named the Belafonte in yet another nod to Cousteau, whose own ship was famously called Calypso); this enormous visual aid allows the director to indulge his obsession for the methodical establishment of his characters’ world and the arrangement of their thematic place in the story. For those scenes which take place off the boat, he chooses a variety of Mediterranean locations (beautifully captured by cinematographer Robert Yeoman) that evoke the flavor of the classic French and Italian cinema that has helped to shape his personal filmic style, but which also create a visual impression of old-time glamour and sophistication that- in many cases- has grown weathered and gone to seed.
Anderson’s ensemble, for the most part, is made up of the actors he had in mind when he and Baumbach wrote the screenplay, a fortunate- and uncommon- occurrence which bears testimony to the director’s popularity with his cast and crew. Most important, of course, is the central presence of the aforementioned Murray, whose dry demeanor embodies and defines the movie’s overall tone; always a surprisingly rich and subtle player, he uses his familiar screen persona to portray Zissou as a man who is good-natured, well-intentioned, and generous of spirit- but also infuriatingly self-absorbed and remote. These qualities are not static, however, and much of the joy that can be derived from The Life Aquatic comes from watching this perennially underappreciated actor navigate the complex changes undergone by the title character, embracing the demands of the moment with the refreshing gung-ho gusto that has always made him so likable, no matter how smarmy or pompous his role may require him to be. It’s a good thing for the movie that he has the ability to remain endearing, for Steve Zissou could easily have come across as a fatuous, manipulative phony; thanks to Murray’s self-deprecatingly buffoonish personality, we can see the charisma that underlies the character’s less pleasant qualities and believe that he is a man who inspires the loyalty and admiration of his misfit crew.
As for the unlikely assortment of oddballs that comprise that crew- as well as the sundry other characters that populate The Life Aquatic– they are brought to varying degrees of life by a mix of familiar and not-so-familiar faces. The most prominent is Wilson, who portrays the young newcomer who may or may not be Zissou’s son; with his earnest, gee-whiz manner and his genteel southern drawl, he provides both a contrast and a foil for the more flamboyant Murray, and suggests a child-like naïveté that reinforces the movie’s boyish-fantasy theme- though at times he comes off as too good to be true, or worse, seems simple-minded rather than simple. Anjelica Huston and Cate Blanchett, as Zissou’s estranged wife and the ambivalent journalist, respectively, are effective in their roles but are ultimately a bit wasted in the long run; Jeff Goldblum brings his usual oily eccentricity to the role of Zissou’s shamelessly self-congratulatory rival, Michael Gambon offers well-mannered class as a mask for the hidden shadiness of Zissou’s producer, and Bud Cort (of Harold and Maude, a film that clearly ranks high in the Wes Anderson pantheon of influences) gives a disarmingly human turn as the “bond company stooge.” As for Zissou’s crew members and interns, most of them are established as distinct “types” to flesh out the background, but unfortunately most of them remain there throughout the film without making much of an individual impression; the exceptions are the previously-mentioned Jorge, whose musical interludes are a frequent (and welcome) distraction, and Willem Dafoe, who plays Klaus, the German first mate whose petulant jealousy is aroused by the favoritism his beloved captain bestows on interloper Wilson. His emotionalism stands out from the rest of the crew, who seem nonplused and disaffected by even the most dramatic developments, but occasionally the performance feels a bit gimmicky, as if the actor were essaying a role in a comedy sketch instead of a major character in a serious feature film. This, in fact, sums up the most problematic element of The Life Aquatic; like all of Anderson’s work, many of the film’s situational conceits are pointedly absurd, and much of the dialogue is self-consciously glib, underplayed with a heightened detachment that gives the whole piece a somewhat artificial feel. Most of the time, it’s a technique that works, but there are times in the film when it gives the impression we are being put-on, creating a disingenuous air that threatens to undermine the sincerity of Anderson’s ultimate message. However, it is not the fault of Dafoe, or any of the other talented players, all of whom deliver on-the-money performances that are true to the style, that it sometimes feels like we are watching an elaborate and extended skit; rather, it is a sense that Anderson, in this particular outing, may have laid it on just a little too thick.
That said, however, I should be quick to point out that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, though it may not be his best work, is a definitively Wes Anderson project, and as such, is full of more than enough delights to compensate for the occasional stylistic miscalculation. Indeed, it has become apparent over his relatively short career that this young filmmaker is a true auteur, a visionary director with an distinct and powerful style which can, perhaps, be easily imitated or parodied but never quite duplicated; his growing body of work exhibits a rare wealth of imagination, coupled with a desire to explore his own foibles onscreen- foibles he happens to share with most of his generation, and that find a unique form of expression through his cinematic voice. Coming at the mid-point of his career so far, and on the heels of his much-lauded The Royal Tennenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou perhaps represents a crystallization of his milieu, a vehicle with which he defined his personal style in the most assertive form to date. If it sometimes seems a little too much, maybe that’s appropriate; after all, Anderson’s films are not meant to be realism- they portray a world of archetypal dream mythology, re-invented with a hipster-ish vocabulary, perhaps, but no less profound for the twist. No matter that it sometimes feels like play-acting; indeed, in a film about boys who would rather go adventuring than grow up, that might even be the point.