By JAMES MELVILLE
Do people actually read these introductions, or do they just skip to the review? If you’re reading this, clap your hands and say “I do believe in intros. Also, James Melville is super handsome and cool. When I grow up, I want to be just like him.” I probably won’t hear you, but hey. You never know.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004):
The Plot: Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is a renowned oceanographer and documentarian, determined to avenge the death of his partner (Seymour Cassel) at the jaws of a jaguar shark. He sets out with his crew to kill the shark and film its death as part of his next documentary. Joining Steve is his loyal and appropriately quirky crew, including Willem Dafoe as an adorably insecure German man. Also along for the ride are a pregnant English reporter (Cate Blanchett), a “bond company stooge” (Bud Cort), and a man named Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), who claims to be Steve’s long-lost son.
Bill Murray has gotten a lot of mileage from playing characters that are sarcastic, self-centered assholes. They’re generally also hilarious and loveable at the same time. Just look at characters like Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters or Phil in Groundhog Day. More recently, Bill has mellowed out a bit—on screen at least—playing disaffected older men in films like Lost in Translation. Steve Zissou is kind of a cross between these two different versions of Bill Murray. He’s a sarcastic, self-centered, disaffected asshole. He realizes that he’s lost whatever spark it is that made him great when he was younger. As Steve tells his wife later in the film, “I know I haven’t been at my best this past decade.”
At its core, The Life Aquatic is about a man in need of fresh purpose. Steve has been caught in a rut for a long time now. His documentaries have gradually been getting worse, and he’s even beginning to fail as a leader, barely staying afloat on a combination of charm and shared history with the crew. The arrival of Ned gives him an opportunity for redemption, but Steve Zissou doesn’t make a very good father, if he makes a good anything at all. Over the course of the film, he grows…not warmer, exactly, but more aware of his shortcomings and the needs of his friends and family.
I doubt that I would have enjoyed this film as much as I did if it hadn’t starred Bill Murray. His performance is understated, but very charismatic at the same time.
Everyone in the ensemble cast does a good job of maintaining Wes Anderson’s distinctive tone. Most of the dramatic weight rests on Murray, Blanchett, and Wilson, and they do an admirable job of conveying genuine emotion from beneath layers of whimsy and pastel colors. They live in a world of 50s-looking science equipment, matching blue uniforms and red caps, and some delightful animated fish, provided by Henry Selick.
Now, I love me some Bill Murray, but I didn’t love this movie. I didn’t hate it, either. Watching it was a pleasant experience, and I didn’t mind re-watching parts of it while I wrote this review. I just don’t think I could love a movie with so little energy.
Everything is very subdued. The characters have feelings, they make them known, some of them even cry. But no matter how dramatic the events are, the energy is dialed down low. The humor is dry. It’s deadpan, very quirky, and at times bitingly sarcastic, but is almost too restrained for its own good. Most of the comedy comes from the ability of the actors to move through absurd situations and dialogue with straight faces.
Halfway through the film, Steve’s ship is boarded by Filipino pirates. There follows a sequence of Bill Murray fighting these pirates to the song “Search and Destroy” by Iggy & the Stooges. The scene gets its energy not from choreography, but from one of the film’s few bursts of loud/energetic music. The sudden appearance of Iggy Pop and thrashing guitars feels more like an intrusion than anything else, though. Probably because as soon as the music ends, things return to the original level of restrained quirkiness.
The rest of the soundtrack is mostly lo-fi, meandering keyboards from former Devo front man Mark Mothersbaugh. There are also subdued Portuguese versions of David Bowie songs, such as might be heard around a Portuguese musician’s campfire on a gentle summer evening. You haven’t heard “Rebel Rebel” until you’ve heard it slower, and in another language.
I guess what I’m saying is that this Wes Anderson movie is very Wes Anderson-y, and you will either like it or not like it, depending on how you feel about Wes Anderson. I liked it at the time, but have apparently grown less fond of it over the course of this review/headache that I have.
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