The Electric Commentary

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

There is a scene in The Life Aquatic where Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) misses his turn on guard duty because he's listening to Jane Winslett-Richardson (Kate Blanchett) read Marcel Proust to her unborn baby. While he's away pirates board the ship at the exact moment that Pele Dos Santos (Seu Jorge) reaches the climax of David Bowie's "A Space Oddity" which he sings in Portuguese while sitting at the stern of The Belafonte.

There is a lot going on in The Life Aquatic, and almost every scene is composed of several little moments, jokes, and tunes so that you always have to be on your guard or risk missing a few. Murray plays Steve Zissou, the Jacques Cousteau-like seafarer who is on a mission to find and kill a Jaguar Shark (which may or may not exist) which ate his best friend on his last voyage. Unfortunately Zissou hasn't made a hit movie in nine years an lacks funding. Fortunately, Owen Wilson, who may or may not be Zissou's son shows up and agrees to invest the money he recently inherited from his deceased mother in Steve's new film. If this all sounds like nonsense, it is, but Wes Anderson's protagonists can always get away with the absurd because he always sets them in an absurd context. Very few people can claim to be world famous oceanographers (and this movie features not one, but two).

Wes Anderson's movies are always staged and acted as if they were plays. His characters are always under the watchful eyes of an audience. There is a reason that Max Fisher is a play write, and why Royal Tenenbaum is the wealthy patron of a famous family. These people, to some extent, exist to be watched. Zissou is no different. When we are allowed to look inside his ship, the Belafonte, the 3rd wall is removed for our benefit, as if we were looking at the H.M.S. Pinafore. The aforementioned Jorge provides most of the soundtrack on his acoustic guitar, all in Portuguese, and all David Bowie. He is supplemented by a Casio keyboard which seems to have been designed circa 1984.

Anderson also maintains his trade mark bright color scheme and larger-than-life accessories. The Belafonte is equipped with an actual yellow submarine, and all observed marine life is computer generated. Some have accused him of disguising his lack of substance with pretty colors. I just think he wants to be sure that you see everything worth seeing.

This movie is very funny, but I don't want to give away more than the commercials already do. One of my favorite lines in Rushmore occurs when Max is out to dinner with Rosemary and Luke Wilson. Max refers to Luke as a Nurse. Wilson retorts that he is wearing OR scrubs to which Max replies, "oh are they?" If you think that that is funny, you'll probably laugh at The Life Aquatic.

So what is it about? Primarily it's about Steve's loneliness. He doesn't really have a family to speak of, and his best friend was just eaten. He is estranged from his wife, his maybe-son can't really connect with him, and with the exception of Klaus (Willem Dafoe) who longs to be Steve's friend/son, the crew members are just background. He tries to create a family and to build bonds with those he encounters no matter what. Sometimes it is appropriate and sometimes not. In the end, everyone he gathers shares a special moment, which is really all I can say.

The bottom line is that it's good. If you enjoy quirky films, or Anderson's other films, you will probably like this one. But it's a weird flick. It's highly stylized and probably not for everyone (just check out Ebert's review) but I liked it a lot.


  • I guess "bull-dyke" and "half-queer" jokes just don't do it for me. I realize this is one of those post-modern "it's funny because the setting and characters are absurd" movies, but when that format fails, it fails hard. For a more successful model, see Napoleon Dynamite.

    By Blogger RyanSimatic, at 9:39 PM  

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