Tuesday, February 18, 2014

#1,282. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) - The Films of Wes Anderson

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 love about 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 was, to that point, his most elaborate motion picture, giving us a place where fish glow in the dark and dolphins aren’t nearly as smart as we think.

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). Estaban, it seems, was devoured by a large, shark-like creature that had never been seen before.

As his agent Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon) frantically searches for the funds to shoot the second 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. That invitation doesn’t sit well with Steve’s second-in-command, Klaus (Willem Dafoe), but Zissou himself is elated when Ned accepts.

Also joining the expedition are 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 has agreed to finance the film. But as the calamities mount (including a rather violent run-in with Filipino pirates), the crew of Zissou’s ship, the Belafonte, threatens to mutiny, a move that would likely bring the film, as well as Zissou’s already faltering career, to an abrupt end.

Wes 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 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 domineering Zissou.&

Rounding out the cast are Angelica Huston as Eleanor, Zissou’s estranged wife who never 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 current rival of Zissou’s; and Willem Dafoe as Klaus, the second-in-command of the Belafonte who can’t hide his jealousy when Ned joins the crew.

Of course, the most interesting of the bunch is Steve Zissou, a sad sack whose best days are behind him. To put it bluntly, 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 at sea, Zissou makes one bad decision after another and puts his entire crew in jeopardy, from breaking into Hennessey’s research facility and stealing equipment to piloting the ship into unprotected waters, where it’s attacked by pirates.

Despite being the title character, Steve Zissou is not a likeable guy. When Jane asks some pointed, unflattering, questions for her article, Zissou starts referring to her in private as a “bull dyke”. But as played by Murray, he does have a certain charm that is 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 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 TV 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 skewed reality of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou 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.

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