Directed By: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston
Tag line: "The deeper you go, the weirder life gets"
Trivia: A 50-year-old minesweeper vessel bought and towed from South Africa served as the Belafonte
As I mentioned in my write-ups of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, one of the things I enjoy about director Wes Anderson’s films is how they create an alternate reality that looks identical to our world, yet is slightly off-kilter. With 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, he crafted what is easily his most elaborate picture to date, giving us a world where fish glow in the dark, and dolphins aren’t nearly as smart as we think they are.
Oceanographer and award-winning filmmaker Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) has just debuted his newest documentary, which chronicles the tragic death of his longtime associate and closest friend, Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel), who was devoured by a large, shark-like creature that’s never been seen before. As his agent, Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon), tries desperately to obtain the funding to shoot the 2nd part of the documentary (where Zissou will hunt and kill the creature responsible for Esteban’s death), Zissou himself is coming to terms with the sudden appearance of Ned Plympton (Owen Wilson), an airline pilot who, by all accounts, is his biological son. Having never met before, Zissou tries to bond with Ned, asking the young man to join “Team Zissou” and accompany them on their newest adventure, an invitation that doesn’t sit well with Steve’s second-in-command, Klaus (Willem Dafoe). Also joining the expedition is Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), a very pregnant reporter assigned to do a cover story on Zissou for her magazine, and Bill Ubell (Bud Cort), who works for the bond company that’s financing the film. But as the calamities mount (culminating in a rather violent run-in with Filipino pirates), the crew of Zissou’s ship, named the Belafonte, threatens to mutiny, a move that would likely bring the film, as well as Zissou’s already faltering career, to a screeching halt.
Anderson has a knack for creating fascinating characters, and the various oddballs that populate The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, as portrayed by its very talented cast, are no exception. Owen Wilson’s Ned, the son who’s anxious to get to know his father, is polite and amiable, while Cate Blanchett’s Jane has a strength that makes her a good foil for the sometimes domineering Zissou. Rounding out the cast are Angelica Huston as Eleanor, Zissou’s estranged wife, who seldom beats around the bush (at one point, she tells Steve that his favorite cat has died. When he asks what happened, she bluntly replies “It was bitten on the neck by a rattlesnake”); Jeff Goldblum as Alistair Hennessey, a former classmate and chief rival of Zissou’s; and Willem Dafoe as Klaus, the second-in-command of the Belafonte who can’t hide his jealousy when Ned becomes a member of the crew.
Of course, the most interesting of the bunch is Steve Zissou himself. A sad sack whose best days are behind him, Zissou isn’t particularly good at his job. When thousands of glowing jellyfish wash up on the beach, he tells Ned they’re Electric Jellyfish, only to be shown up by Jane, who correctly identifies them as Vietcong Man-of-Wars. Once the Belafonte is out at sea, Zissou puts his entire crew in jeopardy by making one bad decision after another, including breaking into Hennessey’s research facility to steal some equipment and leading the ship into unprotected waters, where it’s attacked by pirates. As played by Murray, Steve Zissou isn’t a likeable guy (when Jane asks him a few pointed, not to mention unflattering, questions for her article, he starts referring to her as a “bull dyke”), but he does have a certain charm that’s hard to ignore (his attempts to bond with Ned are actually quite endearing). An adventurer who occasionally wallows in self-pity, Steve Zissou is a complex individual, and it took an actor of Bill Murray’s stature to bring him so convincingly to life.
With so many quirky elements (the soundtrack consists primarily of David Bowie songs performed in Portuguese), it’s easy to see why some critics never warmed up to The Life Aquatic (When reviewing the movie on the television program he co-hosted with Roger Ebert, Richard Roeper called it “one of the most irritating, self-conscious and smug films of the year”). For me, however, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’s skewed reality feels all the more believable thanks to the work of its excellent cast, giving us some of the most memorable characters in Anderson’s entire canon.