Forced Whimsy

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

The wife and I saw Wes Anderson’s latest movie on New Year’s Day, and it was clear that a good portion of the audience had come to the movies just to come to the movies, and others had wanted to see something else that ended up being sold out. Four of us came to the theater to watch The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and we were the only ones in the hall-full auditorium who laughed more than a few times.

After it was over, a lot of people were grumbling, and one man said it was the worst movie he’d ever seen. I don’t think The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou comes anywhere close to being awful, but I certainly understand the reaction. This is a movie without any discernible audience beyond the people who made it. To borrow from Spinal Tap manager Ian Faith: Wes Anderson’s appeal isn’t waning; it’s becoming more selective.

I haven’t felt this asea about a film since my first bewildered audience with Mulholland Drive. Like David Lynch’s latest work, The Life Aquatic is a closed, insular system with no reference points in the real world. Both movies are brave and bursting with integrity — their makers stick to their visions, damn it — but they alienate audiences precisely for that reason.

Although I adore Anderson’s previous two films — Rushmore and The Royal TenenbaumsThe Life Aquatic takes the director’s eccentricities to an altogether different level, piling on Monty Python-style absurdity and the winking fakery of Beastie Boys narrative videos. Watching the movie initially created a pleasant sensation — ah, yes, my old friend Wes Anderson — that over two hours turned tedious and finally grating. Anderson has taken his love of artifice and dry humor to its logical end and proves that it doesn’t work. Now, hopefully, he can go back to making rewarding movies.

Bill Murray stars as Steve Zissou, an oceanographer/documentarian who, behind his constantly impassive expression, is so desperate for box office that it’s possible he faked a shark attack on his partner. The footage of the attack’s aftermath sure is unconvincing, and Zissou claims he dropped his camera, leaving no evidence of this vicious, previously undocumented “jaguar shark.”

So now he’s on a mission to avenge his friend’s death ... if he can get the planned film financed, of course. The crew includes a German, an Arab, a topless chick, and an earnest pilot who might be Zissou’s bastard son. They wear red stocking caps, guns, and ill-tailored baby-blue uniforms clearly stolen from the locker room of some minor-league basketball team in the 1970s. (The details of the movie’s setup seem filched from a bad joke.)

The plot includes three members of the crew lusting for a pregnant journalist, the burglary of a rival oceanographer’s swanky sea lab, an attack by pirates, the rescue of a bond-company stooge and said oceanographer rival, a near-mutiny, and — at long last — a quiet scene of undersea discovery.

The Life Aquatic sounds much more amusing than it actually is, and the entertainment gap stems from the movie’s deliberateness; Anderson has filled the film with painstakingly created “whimsy” — a contradiction that cannot be satisfactorily resolved. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is similarly out-there, but it has a slapped-together, improvised, and casual texture that’s sorely missed here. The 1975 movie has the added benefit of recognizing that it was stupid and silly.

Anderson’s resolution is problematic, too. The co-writer/director employs the ridiculous in the service of a classically structured story that in its closing minutes strives for resonance; he’s trying to impose order in the form of a fundamentally conventional arc using a tool naturally suited to entropy, not emotional impact. (For examples of proper narrative use of the bizarre, see Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Mulholland Drive, and the Terry Gilliam oeuvre outside of The Fisher King.)

Related and almost as damaging is the movie’s aggressive detachment from reality, which manifests itself in ways large and small, from Anderson’s striking framing to the costume design to Portuguese versions of David Bowie songs to gunfights executed seemingly with cap guns to a cut-away set of Zissou’s ship to animated sea creatures that look fake on purpose to Jeff Goldblum running around for a long time with a big hole in his chest ... . Many of these details are, by themselves, funny, but as a whole The Life Aquatic is too heavy with them. The movie is missing the everyday detail — the grounded minutiae — that keeps the audience on planet Earth instead of Anderson’s warped parallel universe: the barber shop in Rushmore, the well-considered directness of Danny Glover’s accountant in The Royal Tenenbaums, and the underlying truths on which the characters in those movies are built.

Surprisingly, the actors don’t seem lost in The Life Aquatic, and it’s a testament to Anderson’s skill as a director that his cast is so uniformly fine in such rudderless material. In recent years Murray has patented his middle-aged life-fumbling, and as Zissou he’s once again masterful as a washed-up, directionless man whose reputation and status act as a cover for immaturity and an impediment to growth and happiness. (This movie might have worked better if the central performance weren’t so obviously rooted in the actor’s previous work with Anderson and in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.) Owen Wilson has a childlike readability, alternately eager and thoughtfully withholding as Zissou’s maybe-son. Best of all are Willem Dafoe, as crewmember Klaus, and Goldblum, as Zissou nemesis Alistair Hennessey; both seem to be having a great time, and it’s nearly infectious.

Beyond the performances, The Life Aquatic thankfully offers something beneath the surface that’s interesting and, I think, revealing: It appears to be an act of self-flagellation. Murray’s character is a metaphor for Anderson, and what seems to drive the movie, in this view, is fear. Wes Anderson does not want to become the filmmaking equivalent of Steve Zissou — flabby, full of himself, lazy, apathetic, and following the normal work routine out of habit rather than passion.

Consider the parallels:

  • Zissou makes movies, with a reliable crew and expendable interns, all attracted by the star of the show; Anderson makes movies, with a reliable crew and expendable interns, all attracted by the star of the show. If Zissou were a fiction filmmaker, he might be Woody Allen — legendary, repeating himself, a punch line, and with his best days far, far behind him.
  • Zissou has an estranged wife who is clearly the brains behind Team Zissou; Anderson has Owen Wilson, who, based on The Life Aquatic — the only Anderson movie he didn’t co-write — is clearly the brains behind Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums.
  • Zissou spends the entire adventure plot of The Life Aquatic doing everything except being an oceanographer, and at the end he pauses with genuine wonder only because he’s run out of dynamite; Anderson is so busy building the most outré movie possible that he forgets to make any emotional connection with the audience, and at the end he pauses for a human moment only because the show has to end.
  • Just as Zissou remembers at the close of his quest why he became an oceanographer in the first place, Anderson reminds us at the close of The Life Aquatic why his earlier movies were so good.

But neither journey — Zissou’s or Anderson’s — is worth taking for the audience, despite somewhat satisfying ends. On the surface, the movie is ultimately a paean to authenticity and being true to one’s inspiration and heart, yet fundamentally it’s an incessantly self-satisfied indulgence of over-the-top fakery and contrivance. There’s nothing authentic in it.

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