The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

(Wes Anderson, USA, 2004)


In the publicity for this film, the claim is made that director and co-writer Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) “essentially threw out the ‘Wes Anderson book’ and reinvented himself”. Well, maybe he didn’t throw it far enough away.


Anderson is one of many contemporary directors who, at a rapid rate, has turned himself into a marketable commodity – an auteur with an instantly recognisable style, signature and set of recurring concerns. Unfortunately, such self-commodification risks the law of diminishing returns.


So, in the ambitiously scaled The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson is pretty much up to his old tricks. Once again we have a vast ensemble of zany people who are variously laconic, repressed, hard-boiled, simple-minded or just plain mean – only, this time, they are on a boat at sea rather than at school or lolling in mansions.


The story, co-scripted by Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming, 1995), follows the obsessive, tunnel-vision pursuits of this oceanographic team (Anderson’s inspiration was the life and career of Jacques Cousteau) and smothers the lot in highbrow irony. Until, finally, some tiny rays of redemption, compassion and rapport shine through the cracks. It is an odd, disguised form of old-fashioned and rather conservative sentimentality.


This in many ways unsatisfying and sometimes tiresome film overreaches itself terribly. But, from moment to moment, if you can get onto its eccentric wavelength, it is fun. Anderson has made a movie which is all surface, and hence it needs to be approached in a suitably superficial way. In fact, if you can block out Anderson ’s heavy-handed attempts at milking pathos, it becomes an almost avant-garde experience, an admirable folly.


The cast is great. The role of Zissou, team leader and amateur filmmaker on a revenge mission, is tailor-made for Bill Murray, and he makes a meal of it. Jeff Goldblum, Anjelica Huston, Noah Taylor, Willem Dafoe and Cate Blanchett wander about injecting fine, well-judged moments of craziness. Some cast members seem to be there simply for the associations they carry, like Bud Cort, veteran not only of the cult classic Harold and Maude but, more importantly for Anderson, Robert Altman’s rarely screened parable of hopeless ambition, Brewster McCloud (1970).


Even more enjoyable than the actors is the bag of stylistic tricks that Anderson is carrying around. He enlivens his signature touch – front-on portraits of his characters lined-up like statues – with nutty whip-pans downwards to some significant object. Entire sequences are based on characters’ compulsive movement across, up and down the elaborate set, exposed in a side-on architectural view as Jerry Lewis did in The Ladies’ Man (1961). The editing is systematically ‘bad’, based on deliberate continuity mismatches from shot to shot.


There are touches of ingenious animation courtesy of Henry Selick (Monkeybone, 2001) – a more successful cameo than the Quay Brothers’ dream-sequence in Frida (2002). And the soundtrack is a feast – not only the songs (most of them early ‘70s David Bowie tunes sung in Portuguese by a folk-guitar-strumming Seu Jorge) but also the constant, low-level humour of tinny intercom messages and cheesy synth pieces composed for Zissou’s filmic masterworks.


While quirky has become the favourite dirty word in discussions of Australian cinema, American directors including Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), David O. Russell ( Huckabees) and Wes Anderson have lately been taking comic quirkiness to cosmic heights. The Life Aquatic may mark the limit-point for how far this quirkiness can go. But, before the fad sinks to the bottom of the ocean, Anderson’s extravaganza is well worth checking out.


MORE life aquatic: Deep Blue, Finding Nemo


MORE Bill Murray: Broken Flowers, Groundhog Day

© Adrian Martin March 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search