DVD Review Of The Life Aquatic, With Steve Zissou
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/29/07
Screenwriter and film director Wes Anderson has made a career out of quirky films that have a rabid following, but offer little depth. He rarely pushes himself, and why his latest film, 2004’s The Life Aquatic, With Steve Zissou was considered worthy of treatment by The Criterion Collection, which usually reserves its accolades for films of stature- both American and foreign, is a puzzle. Granted, they deemed Anderson’s prior mediocre effort, The Royal Tenenbaums, and the 1998 mega-flop sci fi action flick Armageddon worthy of their treatment, but that still is not reason enough to justify this just under two hours long entry into their pantheon- the three hundredth title they’ve chosen. The film was co-written by another indy filmmaker, Noah Baumbach (The Squid & The Whale), but it’s really just an excuse to gibe the film’s star, Bill Murray, a reason to act like Bill Murray always does. It’s a tossup between Murray, in his dryly sardonic roles, and Morgan Freeman, in his wise old Negro roles, as to which Hollywood actor more regularly phones in his performances. Bill Murray does not act, he simply exists as Bill Murray, whatever the character’s name, and in film after film it gets a bit tiring seeing him do the same old tired schtick.
The premise for the film is that Murray is Captain Steve Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau like tv and film documentary worker and oceanographer who contrives his shows with a preciousness that would make Cousteau or Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom host Marlin Perkins gag. He’s fifty-two, has found out he has a thirty year old son named Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson- another one note actor) and just lost his co-host and best friend Esteban (Seymour Cassel) to the attack of a ‘jaguar shark’. The rest of the cast is filled with similarly one dimensional characters who think that merely acting one dimensionally is funny. Willem Dafoe is Klaus Daimler, and acts very Klaus Kinski-like, as a stereotypically German prototypical quasi-Nazi. Cate Blanchett plays a pregnant reporter named Jane Winslett-Richardson who is out to do a magazine cover story on Team Zissou and their ship, The Belafonte. Angelica Houston is Zissou’s shrewish boy toy chasing wife Eleanor. Jeff Goldblum is her first husband, before Zissou, Alistair Hennessey, a bisexual wealthier rival in the oceanography business.
Basically, the setup promises a Moby-Dick like comic hunt for the jaguar shark, but never delivers on that vow. Instead, we get poorly written scenes of Zissou hitting on the reporter, who prefers his son, trying and failing to foster fatherly love for and from Ned, and then trying to fend off Filipino pirates and recover the bond company stooge named Bill (Bud Cort) the pirates kidnap. About the only deviation from formula is the fact that Ned dies at film’s end. Other than this there is no narrative, and merely a string of gags, only about a third of which work. In a sense, Anderson is a bit more imaginative Charlie Kaufman, whose silly and contrived scripts are deemed ‘genius’ by the living banalities that plague Hollywood studios, as well as those in positions of critical power and influence. Anderson’s screenplay is studded with the sorts of ‘insider’ jokes all his films have, those lines that perhaps a dozen people in a crowded theater will laugh at, and only a third of them will know why they’ve chuckled. His films, in general, and this particularly, are not really so bad as they are really just not particularly good.
The CGI effects of the sea creatures, however, are particularly bad and phony looking. Not for a second do they convince, and this does not enhance the comic aspects, only tip off that the rest of the humor is as phony as the effects. But, it’s the phony reactions of the characters, such as the ‘tension’ between Ned and Klaus, that sink this film, that hurt most. Yes, this is a comedy, but well written adult comedies- think Woody Allen in his prime, succeed because they play off of real fully developed characters, not in their lack of real characterization. No characters in this film really connect with each other nor the audience- they are all islands in the sea, and if they occasionally float into each other it’s happenstance. There is no chemistry, nor depth of feeling that is generated. The characters are mostly stereotypes and nothing more. This is not the thing one wants in a film that is deemed a great and important film by such a prestigious outfit as Criterion.
The DVD I got is the single disk version, although Criterion also put out a double disk version with more extras. Still, this film has enough features. The commentary track by Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach was apparently recorded live at the same New York café where they wrote the film. This fact has no bearing on their rather tepid and self-congratulatory comments, but it does distract from actually hearing what they say of the making of the film. In a recapitulation of why most of the film’s humor fails, Anderson bleeps out any mention of Jacques Cousteau by name. Ain’t you ready to guffaw over that? There are also ten deleted scenes, the film trailer, and a making of featurette from Starz! However, none of these give any real insight into the film nor its creation.
The Life Aquatic, With Steve Zissou is certainly not a bad film, merely a forgettable one, although it does have a few good moments, such as a late montage scene to the tune of The Zombies’ The Way I Feel Inside. That that great, but neglected, 1960s pop band gets a nod in a film made now is almost enough for me to recommend this tepid offering, but not quite. While you may not be pulling your hair out over the condescending tone of the film, say like in Schindler’s List, Crash, or Brokeback Mountain, at least those films garner intense reactions, however negative. The Life Aquatic, With Steve Zissou is a shrug and a yawn, and in a decade will be mostly forgotten. Whether its creator will be also is the real question, for ‘hot, young directors’ are like starlets to the studios that chew them up and spit them out. Anderson has talent, but he’s yet to match his similarly named competitor, Paul Thomas Anderson, whose films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia, despite their flaws, are superior to anything Wes Anderson has wrought.
Mainstreaming him might actually be a boon to Anderson, as long as he is willing to ferret out well written screenplays written by others. His distorting of reality into comedy can work, but in all of his films he’s yet to have a single real or likable character emerge. This film seems to me to be the filmic equivalent of a good working first draft, but I was always wondering what it could have been had it been written by Terry Southern and directed by Stanley Kubrick, the duo who wrought the great Dr. Strangelove, which shares a similarly misanthropic and comic view of life. Regardless, The Life Aquatic, With Steve Zissou is potential without realization, sadly like most of its audience members. Perhaps that’s the reason those eight people laughing do so without knowing why, and simply don’t care.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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