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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) – Criterion Collection DVD Review

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou DVD cover art


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


  • Running audio commentary by Anderson & Baumbach
  • Behind the scenes footage
  • “Talk show footage” with Anderson & Baumbach
  • Interview with composer Mark Mothersbaugh
  • Ten video performances of Seu Jorge singing David Bowie songs in Portuguese
  • Behind the scenes docu by actor/intern Matthew Gray Gubler
  • Interviews with cast and crew
  • Behind the scenes featurette
  • Deleted scenes
  • Behind the scenes photo gallery and artwork
  • Trailer

Released by: Criterion/Touchstone.
Rating: R.
Region: 1
Anamorphic: Yes.

My Advice: Sadly, skip it.

[ad#longpost]Well, I don’t want to just flat out rehash my my review of the film, so we’ll dash through what we need to, hmmm?

Steve Zissou (Murray) reminds you a lot like Jacques Cousteau, except our buddy Steve is a bit of a bastard and is extremely down on his luck. It’s not enough that his latest docu, the one where his best friend (Seymour Cassel) got eaten by a never before seen species of shark, Pluto Nashed. But the rest of his life is falling down around him. His wife (Huston) is all but separated from him, his crew is kinda pissed at him, and a guy (Wilson) who could potentially be his son shows up out of the blue. His last hurrah, it seems, is to take revenge on the shark who ate his buddy. No exploration, no science, just find the shark and kick its ass.

To say that I was let down by the film would be a bit of an understatement. I absolutely freaking love Rushmore. Hell, I liked Royal Tenenbaums even better than its predecessor. And after seeing Murray in the lead with the cast they picked to back him up, plus Henry Selick on board to create the sealife, I was thrilled to see where we were going next with Mr. Anderson. Sadly, it’s not even backwards, to the very unfunny and too quirky for its own good Bottle Rocket. Instead, it’s off into the stratosphere somewhere, as the entire thing just comes unglued and falls apart before your very eyes.

Bill Murray as Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic
Bill Murray as Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic

Again, I’m going down the path of my review, but suffice to say that the delicate balance that Anderson walks with his previous two bits of genius–that of a very off-kilter reality that instead of being absurd seems more hyperreal than anything else–is blown away for a film that’s just too damn obtuse for its own good. And it’s not that I think I’m missing anything, I just don’t think there’s anything there.

Now the film has executed the dreaded double whammy. Not only has my faith in Anderson as a filmmaker been shaken, but this flick has done the unthinkable: it’s a Criterion release that I’m going to advise you not to buy. The thing about Criterion is that they are the standard for DVD releases. If it comes out on Criterion, you buy it. It’s that simple. Even films you don’t like are worth rewatching with all the bonus stuff that Criterion puts on them. You may not love the film, but you’ll at least understand the film. You’ll learn something. Criterion are masters at creating what’s essentially a film school that’s reached its 300th lesson with this one, and oh man, what the hell happened?

Seu Jorge rocks some David Bowie in The Life Aquatic
Seu Jorge, one of the reasons The Life Aquatic is watchable

First up, there is a commentary with Anderson and Baumbach. They decided to record the commentary while sitting in the restaurant where they went to write the film. At the very table, if I remember correctly. Sound clever? It’s not. Because they’re talking to you while the restaurant is in operation, so you not only hear the crowd noise and the tinkling of glasses, but at times they actually talk to the wait staff. They were going for a feeling that you were sitting down for an intimate chat with them over a glass of wine, I know–but instead I spent the whole time distracted by all the background noises. It’s not clever, it’s ridiculous.

The documentary that’s on the disc, “This is an Adventure,” isn’t a documentary. It’s forty-plus minutes of behind the scenes footage. And while seeing Bill Murray crack jokes off camera is nice, and getting to hear Anderson tell Dafoe to be “more Christ-like” is priceless, goddammit, if it’s behind the scenes footage, call it behind the scenes footage. Calling it a docu means that I’m waiting for narration or something that just isn’t there.

The Mondo Monda talk show from The Life Aquatic
Mondo Monda confuses, maybe by design?

Another headscratcher is “Mondo Monda,” what–I believe, anyway–is a fake Italian talk show with Antonio Monda (who plays the festival director in the film) interviewing Anderson and Baumbach. Trouble is, he does a lot of the interview in Italian and they have no interpreter. Finally Monda has to start asking questions in Italian and English. Anderson looks perplexed and Baumbach just looks bored. This seems like another attempt at being clever, and it’s not: it’s just a goofy waste of time.

There’s other featurettes with behind the scenes stuff and interviews, such as the “Starz on the Set” bit. But it’s the same old thing you’ve seen time and again: they go round-robin talking about how great it is to work with [insert name here] and how [talented/unique/interesting] they are. A lot of this is focused on Anderson, and while that’s great, it’s not really worthwhile. They do spend some time talking with Selick about his work (which is nice) and dealing with things like the costuming and crazed sets needed for the film. Those portions are interesting, but you have to slog to get to them.

Also as separate features are talks with Blanchett, Wilson and Seymour Cassel. Cassel’s is nice, since he goes to a cigar shop and gets asked about working with Cassevetes–and his work in scuba gear is comical–but why didn’t they just do a single featurette that incorporated all of this for each character? Because they’re separate selections on the screen it just comes off as padding.

Now, lest you think I’m just going to shove this disc to the ground and keep kicking it relentlessly, there’s some gems among the sewer water. First up, the featurette with composer Mark Mothersbaugh is interesting as hell. Not only does he talk about his work on this film, but he goes over all the Anderson films he’s done and goes beyond that to talk about how he transitioned from Devo to scoring. It’s just a damn good focus on the guy, although he needs to be careful next time he does one of these: the adorable dead-to-the-world enormous pug he has on his lap steals the show often by, well, not doing much of anything.

Mark Mothersbaugh (and pug) discuss The Life Aquatic
Mark Mothersbaugh (and pug) discuss The Life Aquatic

Also freaking excellent are the ten uncut video performances by Seu Jorge. He and Dafoe were the best parts of the film, and it makes me want to go buy some of his albums. If you really dug the hell out of his David Bowie interps, be advised that this comes with tracks that I don’t think made it to the soundtrack, so okay, yes, if you needed to, it would be worth owning for that.

Better than the supposed docu is the docu shot by Matthew Gray Gubler, the intern who really played an intern in the film. His behind the scenes footage, especially with Noah Taylor and Michael Gambon, is hysterical. He talks about everything, including how he injured himself doing jumping jacks. Hell, he manages to create a quirky short film that’s better than the actual film he’s talking about. How odd.

Intern behind the scenes of The Life Aquatic
Matthew Gray Gubler having a bad hair movie

But apart from that, this is a wash. And don’t misconstrue…I was looking forward to cracking this open and learning more about this film that so threw my cinematic hopes down the toilet. I didn’t set out to crucify either this film or this DVD release. Criterion has always been good at making the bad palatable, as I’ve said. I can only figure that working with Touchstone on this release is what hosed the whole thing up, since a lot of these features that didn’t work felt like something you’d get off one of their releases as opposed to Criterion. Though they were involved with the last two releases on Criterion as well, so…hell, I have no idea.

If you must, rent it. But otherwise, sadly, leave a hole in your collection…unless you’re a completist or one of the folks who enjoyed this film a lot more than I did.

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