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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

For a film critic, there are few things worse than dashed hopes. Going into a movie hoping for something great and then walking out with a frown is a dreadful experience. So I typically try to keep expectations low. If I don't expect too much, I can't be disappointed. That's almost impossible, though, if a film is directed by one of my favorite filmmakers.

Wes Anderson is one of my favorite directors. Both Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums were high on my Top10 lists for their respective years, and Bottle Rocket has an irrestible charm. And with Anderson bringing back many of his favorite actors (including the gracefully aging Bill Murray) for his newest film, I couldn't help but hope that lightning might strike again.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou will never be mistaken for anything but a Wes Anderson film. There is the large cast of quirky characters, the deadpan dialogue, the exquisite attention to production design, and the hermetic scenario in which everything takes place in a tiny, insulated world. In this case, it's the world of a Jacques Cousteau-like marine biologist/filmmaker named Steve Zissou (Murray). In his latest documentary (which we see in the movie's opening sequence), Steve's longtime assistant and best friend is eaten by a strange sea creature that Zissou dubs a jaguar shark. In the comical Q&A which follows the documentary's premiere, Zissou vows to track down the shark and blow it up. "How would that serve the interests of science?" one horrified audience member asks. "Revenge," Steve responds.

So Zissou puts together another expedition with the help of a financier (played by Michael Gambon) and a young man who claims to be Zissou's son (Owen Wilson). Steve's wife (Anjelica Huston) bails at the beginning so that she can spend time with her ex-husband and Steve's archrival (in a startling, brilliant performance by Jeff Goldblum). Out on the high seas, they run into numerous problems, including two unfortunate battles with pirates. But what should be high comedy becomes just a bewildering mess.

The difference between this film and the much more successful Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore is that the elements don't come together in The Life Aquatic. Bill Murray has perfected his sorrowful but comedic persona, but it doesn't mesh with Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach's script, which feels far too improvised. The number of jokes that fall flat as soon as they leave Murray's mouth can't be counted on two hands, and Anderson seems to revel in the uncomfortable pause that follows.

The improvisational feel extends to the characters themselves. As much as I enjoy Willem Dafoe's turn as a needy, German assistant (who knew Dafoe could be so funny?), it doesn't fit with Cate Blanchett's portrayal of a straight-ahead reporter. Even Anderson can't keep her character consistent. At one point, she's reading Proust to her unborn baby; at another point, she's interviewing Murray like she hopes to be on CNN.

In Rushmore and especially The Royal Tenenbaums, the characters were perfectly controlled. Yes, they were odd, but their oddness didn't waver; and more importantly, their respective quirks were designed to work together. Ben Stiller's anal-retentiveness in Tenenbaums was a hilarious foil for both his own sons' desire to explore and his father's spectacular selfishness. In Rushmore, Jason Schwartzman's teenage obsession contrasted brilliantly with Murray's failed dreams. But with The Life Aquatic, none of the characters complement each other terribly well.

It doesn't help that Anderson's own obsession with hipster production design has clearly gotten out of control. The Zissou costume with an omnipresent, ridiculous red hat and sky-blue Speedos might be a reference to Cousteau, but it's designed to tickle the funny bone of jaded twenty-somethings who will laugh merely because it's ridiculous and not because it's actually funny. A spectacular cut-away of the Zissou boat is suitably impressive, but it doesn't do much to advance the story. With The Royal Tenenbaums, the precious props and costumes were highly detailed, but they also told you something about the characters and how they relate to each other. In The Life Aquatic, they're just detailed.

So, by the film's three-quarter mark, I was resigning myself to that dreadful experience of disappointed hopes. But then something happened. Something truly wonderful. At the risk of sounding like the Grinch whose heart grew three sizes that day, I can only say that Wes Anderson suddenly brings his film together in a moment that's both stunning and transcendent. It's akin to the play at the end of Rushmore when all of the characters suddenly realize what they have in common. It's like the funeral scene at the end of Tenenbaums when everyone comes together to celebrate a not-so-great man. Steve Zissou, surrounded by his friends and even his enemies, sees the jaguar shark, and all is good. I'm not embarrassed to say I cried.

Is the final reel of The Life Aquatic worth everything that comes before? I'm not sure, but I'm happy to say I left the theater with a smile on my face and not a frown.   

J. Robert Parks   12/20/2004



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