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"Quirky and oftentimes absurd, 'The Life Aquatic' is an action comedy of misfit proportions."
"The pacing is uneven, the tone is somewhere between blah and ho-hum, and it suffers from too much randomness."
"Will only appeal to a handful and will undoubtedly baffle the rest."
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou  


Steve Zissou: Bill Murray
Ned Plimpton: Owen Wilson
Winslett-Richardson: Cate Blanchett
Eleanor Zissou: Anjelica Huston
Klaus Daimler: Willem Dafoe
Alistair Hennessey: Jeff Goldblum
Oseary Drakoulias: Michael Gambon
Review December 2004

For anyone unfamiliar with Wes Anderson's works like "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums," I must warn you. You must prepare for the unexpected, the indescribable, and the bizarre. And watching his fourth and most ambitious feature, "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," you get all of that and more. "Aquatic" follows the seafaring escapades of famed oceanographer and documentarian, Steve Zissou (Murray), who after losing his best friend to a menacing jaguar shark, decides to pursue a course of revenge. With a cast of irregular crewman, Team Zissou enters the high seas on the verge of bankruptcy. They must evade a band of pirates, rescue a team member from kidnappers, and come face to face with the frightening shark. Of course, this is not your typical Jacques Cousteau fare. This is a film that explores personal relationships as much as it explores the underwater world. And it does so in a bizarre and crazy way. Quirky and oftentimes absurd, "The Life Aquatic" is an action comedy of misfit proportions.

Steve Zissou is a legendary oceanographer, much like Jacques Cousteau, known for his insightful documentaries about life under the sea. But he's also a bit unconventional in the way he conducts himself and the way in which he leads Team Zissou, a dysfunctional crew distinguished by their red hats and Speedos. After a tragic mission in which is best friend and long time partner, Esteban, is consumed by a mysterious jaguar shark, rumors begin spreading that he has lost his professional edge and relevancy. At about the same time, he is approached by Ned Plimpton, a Southern gentleman and Air Kentucky co-pilot, who claims to be Zissou's long lost son. With his reputation on the line and the potential to act fatherly, Zissou sets out to make his boldest film, one that will acquaint him with his son and simultaneously exact vengeance on the shark that ate his friend.

Aboard The Belafonte and along for the epic journey are: Eleanor (Huston), Zissou's brilliant wife and Vice President of the Zissou Society; German engineer Klaus Daimler (Dafoe); Oseary Drakoulias, Zissou's bubbly producer; Vladimir Wolodarsky, the resident physicist and composer; Bill Ubell, the bond company representative; Pele dos Santos, a Brazilian Safety Expert and classical guitarist; and Jane Winslett-Richardson, a pregnant reporter covering the mission. Additionally, there are interns, a frogman, camera and sound guys, and a perennially topless script girl. Together, the team must overcome a variety of obstacles from pirates, kidnappers, rival Alistair Hennessey, and bankruptcy before confronting the mysterious jaguar shark. And Zissou himself must overcome his own shortcomings to once again gain respectability.

If you were to look up the word 'ecclectic' in a dictionary, you would most likely find a listing of Wes Anderson's films and characters like the abnormal Max Fischer in "Rushmore" or the dysfunctional family depicted in "The Royal Tenenbaums". This is not an insult by any means, but rather, a distinction. Simply put, Wes Anderson's films are different. They are different artistically, they are different aesthetically, they are different musically, and they are different emotionally. In "The Life Aquatic," Anderson's fourth feature, there is a team of misfit Jacques Cousteau types asea on a World War II minesweeper, there are imaginary sea creatures, Filipino pirates, red caps and Speedos, and a soundtrack comprised of David Bowie songs performed acoustically in Portuguese. All of these quirks, along with an unpredictable story, are what go into a Wes Anderson story. All you can do is sit back and admire the imagination and creativity that comes with it.

Most noticeably, the film has a real textured and linear quality to it. Utilizing the award winning artistry of Henry Selick, mundane aquatic life is brought to life in marvelous iridescent color. Surprisingly, this is not digital or computer graphics as we've become accustomed to, but rather, classic stop motion animation. Selick is a pro, having used the same technique previously on "The Nightmare Before Christmas." There are Day-Glo lizards, paisley octopi, golden barracudas, and electric jellyfish, not to mention the magnificent jaguar shark itself. Additionally, Anderson collaborated with production designer Mark Friedberg to bring Zissou's habitat to life. Effectively, they used a model technique to illuminate a cross section of the Belafonte as if it were a stage piece with actors moving from room to room. And the Pescespada Island compound is a unique mix of 12th century castle, a swimming pool with a killer whale, a sea plane landing area, and of course, a ping pong table.

Anderson claims that the part of Steve Zissou was written exclusively for Bill Murray. And it's a part that stretches Murray's capabilities emotionally. "Don't you guys like me anymore?," Murray's Zissou asks dejectedly. It is a feeling of remorse as Zissou transforms from a self-centered egotist to a compassionate father and leader. Unlike other roles, this one puts Murray in a vulnerable position, one where his character's career and livelihood are slipping away and he must rise above to find something greater. The only question is whether he will have the energy to do so. Like Murray, Anderson intentionally challenges the other actors in different ways. Owen Wilson steps out of his rambunctious, hip stereotype ways to play a na?ve simpleton; Willem Dafoe sidesteps his tough guy mentality and plays a German engineer comically; and Seu Jorge, whom you might recall from "City of God," puts down his acting chops momentarily to showcase his musical skills.

With all of the uniqueness and artistry, what could possibly be wrong with the film? Well, the pacing is uneven, the tone is somewhere between blah and ho-hum, and it suffers from too much randomness. Throughout much of the film, there is very little urgency or inspiration. Instead, it moves along at a snail's pace, only to be jolted with random acts of action - an attack by pirates, an ad hoc rescue mission, and a tense submarine dive into the den of the jaguar shark. In particular, the character of Zissou is lackadaisical and tired, unwilling to take action unless forced into it. This is not methodical or purposeful storytelling, mind you, but rather irrational and lethargic tale telling. Zissou wants to return to greatness, he wants to avenge his friend's death, he wants to be a good father, and he wants to be loved. But his methods are far too rash and nonsensical. And from my perspective, indifferent, wishy-washy characters do not make for a great story.

"The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" is a highly creative and imaginative adventure with Wes Anderson's idiosyncrasies aplenty. There are some comedic moments as well as some touching moments as Zissou searches for love, revenge, and redemption. And the artistic quality and colorful imagery are considerably delicate, promoting the feeling of hand made craftsmanship. Still, this is a film that will only appeal to a handful and will undoubtedly baffle the rest. Because of the outlandish humor, the jumbled story, and the kooky characters, the film stands out as a well-made machine whose parts don't quite add up to a whole.

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