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The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004) – Movie Review

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou poster

Written by: Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston

My Advice: Skip it.

Steve Zissou (Murray) is in more than a rut…he’s in the Marianas Trench, practically. His underwater documentaries haven’t been well received in years, his wife (Huston) is this close to walking out on him, his crew is suffering from terrifically low morale, a reporter (Blanchett) has shown up to write an article that could either break or break him, and some guy (Wilson) has shown up who may or may not be his son. And worst of all, his long-time compadre (Seymour Cassel) was eaten by a very rare jaguar shark. There’s only one thing to do: rally the troops and go seek revenge on said shark.

Well, this is a painful review to write. After overcoming the profoundly unfunny Bottle Rocket to deliver two sublime pieces of film, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson steers his star-studded fourth feature right back into unfunny hell. The thing about an Anderson film, and what makes it effective, is that it takes place in a world that’s just slightly more askew than our own. Things are odd, but not so odd that it feels unrealistic. The characters in this world are also rather odd, but not so much so that you can’t recognize them as people you could know in your real life. Because this is played just a little bit off kilter, when the weird shit happens (a rich businessman decides to build a giant aquarium or a guest arrives late at a wedding party high out of his mind and driving a car into the building), you take it in stride.

[ad#longpost]Don’t misconstrue: the reason Life Aquatic falls spectacularly flat is not because it fails to live up to any expectation, it’s because it tries to act as though it’s operating under those aforementioned slightly askew parameters–but it’s not. Instead of a world most folks can understand, we’re in a fantasyland in disrepair, headed up by an obvious Cousteau analog. It’s where everybody–including the interns–has a chance to carry a glock, where a crew of misfits can have grand adventures finding rare animals, and where you can actually have somebody like Jeff Goldblum as a nemesis. Because of this, the really odd occurrences are just that…odd. They have no resonance.

And the strange non sequiturs that characters throw out just kind of twitch vaguely in the air. At a crucial point in the story, Blanchett’s pregnant character makes a statement about her baby’s age at a point in the future, to which Murray responds…but…where the hell did it come from? The same lines traded between Max Fischer and Herman Blume, or Royal and Chas Tenenbaum, might have worked. But here, what little depth you’ve gone into the story…pop…you’re out again. Also not helping matters is the sea life animation by Henry Selick. Don’t get me wrong, the creatures look cool and all, but they also look like they’re from a different movie. If we had a decent real world setup to begin with, maybe the fanciful would have worked…but seeing Selick’s animation in this film just took me right out of the movie. Again.

It doesn’t help matters that instead of using this diverse cast of great actors to bring to life a legion of memorable characters, nothing is fleshed out at all. Huston is The Bitchy Wife. Noah Taylor‘s role could have been played by anyone. Jeff Goldblum is Jeff Goldblum. Even characters that should feel real simply from the amount of time we spend with them, like Blanchett and Wilson, don’t feel genuine in the least. Bill Murray just seems tired and bored. And granted, his character spends a lot of time tired and bored, but surely there’s got to be something else going on. When Bud Cort shows up for a small role and brings more energy than most of your main cast, you have issues. About the only two memorable characters are the pouty Klaus (Dafoe in a wonderful departure for him, sadly underutilized) and Seu Jorge as Pelé, primarily because Jorge provides the only really memorable thing about the whole film: he sings Bowie songs in Portuguese, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar.

The film is a mess. It can’t decide what it wants to be and tries to just throw a bunch of characters against the wall and make them stick. Character moments don’t work and sometimes just are wrong–Goldblum smacking a dog with a rolled up paper for no apparent reason springs immediately to mind. The plot is jumpy and contrived and supposed revelations do little more than spark a “Eh” response. Basically, it has very little to offer. I can’t even tell Murray completists to go see it, at least not with a clear conscience. Grab any of his other films, watch them again instead, and call it good.

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  • I have to say, your review on this movie is insanely inaccurate. Opinions aside, you are just wrong. The creativity and orginality in this movie alone sets it aside from other films. Didnt realize there was a cookie cutter form needed for movies, but I suppose that’s the way in your boxed in point of view. maybe the film is a mess for those who watch once or twice and don’t have the mind or patience to comprehend the story taking place… Especially if you don’t understand the dialogue between Murray and Blanchett regarding the future age of her child. Unfunny? Back to opinions, mine? This is by far the film that gives me the most laughs, over and over again.

  • Alex: Thanks for your entertaining comment. Your comment gives me the most laughs, over and over again. Much more than this film, in fact. I love the bit where you pretend to not know the difference between opinion and fact. That part literally had me crying with mirth. You have made my day. Thanks again.

  • Hi, Widge. First off, thanks for your reviews, (just worked my way back through most wayhomers to the written ones) even though your strict avoidance of spoilers is sometimes a bit too limiting.
    I really hoped you’d seen Anderson’s movies, and I’m glad you have, and even better, that you like his general way of creating his cinematic world. I find it surprising you didn’t enjoy this particular movie though. My one problem is with pacing in the middle (the annoyingly clumsy and overlong subplot involving Bud Cort) distract from the stronger elements of the third act, where the characters make peace with their situations, and where the whole thing gets back in Anderson’s court (my only cinematic gripe with Aquatic is how badly he handles action scenes). I’d say this movie deserves multiple views for it’s stunning visuals (and vis. details) and Murray’s hilariously unlikable character alone (I love his work but I found Lost in translation a big let down after all the critical hype to be honest). To end this lengthy post, the movie got even more interesting since I’ve started reading more about-, and from Cousteau, who in hindsight seems to be almost as ego-centric and a controll-freak as Zissou. No wonder they couldn’t use his name, in relation the whole setup feels way too close to home.

    P.S.: The recurring use of dynamite is a blast.

  • Widge – it must be dreadful going through life being you. This film achieves in every department. I cannot fathom how you could sit through the wonderful quirkiness, poignancy and hunour of this feature and feel nothing (but unprecedented anger leading to the rediculous ramblings that I’ve seen above). The truth is this film wasn’t aimed at sceptics and synics like yourself, so don’t watch what you won’t appreciate. Leave it to us. The fans.
    Ps – you will realise you were wrong about this film. One day.

  • Joel: it must be hell being you, my friend. If you, deep down inside, don’t trust your own opinion of a film to the extent that you would rather a non-fan stay away from the film than see it? To have such a fragile hold that an opinion different than your own makes you react like this? Wow, man. My opinion might change someday, but it’s not going to be you that does it.

    I’m willing to allow people to have differing opinions…you are not. But I’m the synic [sic]. Okay, man. Got it.

  • You’re naive. You knew what you were in for. Like a restaurant critic who goes to a popular backstreet brasserie licking their lips, not at the thought of food but at the prospect of dismantling a business – because you can. But in your case you can’t because this website/blog doesn’t fit the bill. Last time I come here. Cheque please?

  • Jack: Sorry you won’t come back…really appreciate you increasing my search engine hits for “Life Aquatic” and “naive”. Takes a special kind of naive person to increase the power of someone they appear to dislike so much. We’ll miss you.

  • Widge, you are a profoundly errant human being… which makes your lack of affinity for this film all the more surprising, considering its protagonist. Sorry you didn’t get something pre-chewed sloughed into your mouth for easy digestion on this one… might want to stick to reviewing Disney and action films in the future.

  • Wrolf: So rather than respond to anything I’ve actually said or try to intelligently engage me in a conversation about why we can agree to disagree about a film, you’re just going to attack me personally, huh?

    Okay. Even though the public can’t see your email address, I can. And you chose it well.