Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Once Over Twice: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

(2004) Directed by Wes Anderson; Written by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach; Starring: Bill Murray, Anjelica Houston, Cate Blanchett, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe and Jeff Goldblum; Available on DVD. 
Rating: **** ½

One of the reasons that I started The Once Over Twice feature was to showcase films that slipped away from the public consciousness for one reason or another.  Another reason was purely selfish – affording me the opportunity to get on my soapbox about personal favorites that I considered to be underrated and unloved.  Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou easily falls into this category, being one of those “love it or hate it” affairs.  It’s not as readily accessible as the more lauded (and somewhat overrated) Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums, but that just seems more alluring to me. 

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou had a short theatrical run, vanishing quickly with a lukewarm reception and poor box office receipts.  In retrospect, it isn’t too difficult to see why it failed to strike a chord with mainstream audiences or critics with its singularly eccentric vibe.  While the film was clearly not for everyone, I have an alternate theory why it wasn’t embraced by the masses.  You see, I believe that this film was made expressly for me to address my specific sensibilities.  I can vividly recall watching the Jacques-Yves Cousteau documentaries on television back in the 70s, fascinated by his crew and their various undersea adventures (which served as the inspiration for Anderson’s film).  Almost a decade later, I was called upon to “design” an oceanographic research vessel for my junior high Oceanography class, and I based it heavily on Cousteau’s ship, the Calypso (which becomes the Belafonte in the film).  I think it’s safe to say that I was primed to appreciate this film decades before it was released.  And then there’s that little homage at the end of the film, but more on that later. 

Bill Murray turns in one of his best performances as the eponymous Steve Zissou.  He’s sort of an alternate universe Cousteau, sporting a woolen red cap and touring the world with his hand-selected team of ocean explorers.  We first meet Zissou at a film festival in Italy, premiering his latest undersea documentary to an ambivalent crowd.  He’s somewhat past his prime, and he knows it.  He seems ready to hang up his cap once he’s made one more film, and possibly regained some of what he’s lost.  Zissou isn’t a very likable person – self-centered, self-aggrandizing, and always looking for the perfect opportunity to exploit his life drama as potential documentary fodder.  He browbeats pregnant * reporter Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), who’s there to do a biographical piece on her one-time idol.   Meanwhile, in an Ahab-like turn, he vows to locate and kill the mythical jaguar shark that he deems responsible for killing his friend and crewmember Esteban (not a particularly progressive stance for someone who’s devoted his life to promoting the conservation of nature). 

* Fun note: In an unplanned coincidence, Blanchett was actually pregnant during the shoot.

Zissou’s life takes another unexpected twist when Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) walks into his life, claiming to be his son.  The film never firmly establishes whether or not Ned is actually related, but something seems to click.  Zissou invites Ned to join his “pack of strays,” much to the chagrin of some of the more seasoned crewmembers, but he eventually finds his own niche.  We witness some growth in Zissou, thanks to Ned, perhaps because he’s gained something he never thought he needed.  Ned represents the better, nobler half of Zissou that’s locked away from the rest of the world.

In true Wes Anderson fashion, the rest of the ensemble performances are suitably impressive.  Jeff Goldblum is Zissou’s wealthy archrival Alistair Hennessey, who circumnavigates the globe with his comparatively more upscale Operation Hennessey team.  Operation Hennessey is sort of the Camp Mohawk to Team Zissou’s Camp North Star (using an analogy from an earlier Murray-starring vehicle).  Anjelica Houston is Zissou’s estranged wife (and Hennessey’s ex-wife), Eleanor.  In addition to providing Zissou with the funding to continue his endeavors, she’s the obvious brains of the organization.  Bud Cort, unrecognizable from his Harold and Maude days, is amusing as Bill Ubell (aka: the Bond Company Stooge).  Willem Dafoe and Michael Gambon, as quick-tempered crewmember Klaus Daimler and film producer Oseary Drakoulias respectively, are also suitably fun in their supporting roles.

Anderson’s film is filled with many inspired touches that skirt reality and fantasy.  In an early scene, we’re treated to a tour of the Belafonte, which resembles a cutaway illustration brought to life.  Several stop-motion animation sequences by Henry Selick are utilized to depict some of the more fanciful (and completely fictitious) denizens of the deep, such as a crayon ponyfish or the elusive jaguar shark.  The more fantastical scenes help maintain a sense of unreality that might be too much for some or even considered self-indulgent, but they always hit the right notes for me.

Speaking of notes, the soundtrack employs the usual eclectic assortment of choice vintage rock tracks that has become a Wes Anderson staple, accompanied by Mark Mothersbaugh’s lively synth score.  Although several artists are featured, it’s the music of David Bowie that takes center stage.  Several of his songs are prominently featured, throughout the film, along with inspired Portuguese-language re-interpretations by Brazilian singer Seu Jorge (who also plays a member of the Zissou crew, Pelé dos Santos). 

Some critics accused The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou of being too whimsical – as if that were a bad thing.  Many of Anderson’s choices are very cinematic, choosing style over realism.  The frequent surreal lapses remind us that perception (whether it’s examining Zissou’s celebrity or the exploration of the alien ocean environment) is in the eye of the beholder.  Anderson wears his influences on his sleeve (In the DVD commentary, he cites Fellini, who was never afraid to test the boundaries of reality, as one of the filmmakers whose work inspired this movie).  It’s probably the final scene that cements my affection for this movie, however, with a direct nod to another one of my personal favorites, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banazai: Across the Eighth Dimension.  References aside, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou remains one of the most imaginative Wes Anderson films (rivaled only by The Fantastic Mr. Fox), and it’s the one I like to revisit the most.   


  1. Good review.

    I also remember watching the Jacque Cousteau docs on TV when I was a kid, so I definitely got the connection when I saw this film.

    Frankly, I've never seen what the big deal was with Rushmore. I like this film better.

    I was actually going to mention the Buckaroo Banzai homage, but you already had it in your post. I mentioned it in my Buckaroo Banzai review. I also had noticed that Jeff Goldblum is in both films and both sequences.

    1. Thanks, Chip! This is my favorite Wes Anderson film (although The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a close second). I didn't catch the Buckaroo Banzai reference the first time I saw it, but my wife pointed it out, and sure enough, when I listened to the DVD commentary, Wes Anderson directly mentioned the homage. Now I can't help but link the two films together!

  2. Barry,
    I'm a big fan of Life Aquatic too. What a crazy fun ride it was. I adore Bill Murray and he never disappoints, especially here in that red beanie. You take one look at him trying to be serious but you just cant help but smile.

    I have to admit that I'm not the biggest fan of Angelica Houston but she adds a lot to the film with that same blank face she had so often in The Royal Tenenbaums. Of course bringing Dafoe and Goldblum into the mix with such a visually appealing 1/1/2 it's a must see for everyone.

    Did you like Rushmore? That's another of Anderson's films that I enjoyed.

    Another great review.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Page! I felt that the Life Aquatic was criminally underrated, and it never got the chance it deserved at the box office.

      It's been a while since I've seen Rushmore, so I might need to check it out again sometime.

  3. Nice review Barry, that upcoming Moonrise Kingdom film has had me thinking about Anderson's other films lately. I actutally looked for this film via streaming the other day. Sadly no luck.

    cool looking Avatar and enjoyed checking out your blog.

    1. Thanks for taking a look! I wanted to write about The Life Aquatic since I started my blog, but I kept getting sidetracked. So many movies to write about, so little time. Glad I finally got around to it!