Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, The (2004): Wes Anderson’s Stale Film–Starring Bill Murray and Cate Blanchett

The problem with Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is not that it’s not funny, or that its budget is north of $50 million, but that the young helmer is already repeating ideas and recycling characters from his rather small oeuvre, only four features.

Anderson is emerging as an auteur in the worst sense of the term, one with a limited vision and obsessed with a finite number of ideas.

Structurally a mess, the whole movie is off–as if it landed on the wrong planet or was placed in the wrong sea.  The comedy represents a case of arrested development in two different ways. First, for the precocious director himself, who’s mined before the turf of misfits, dysfunctional families, disparity between talent and aspiration, the fall from grace and the need for redemption.

Second, arrested development also characterizes his central persona, played by his regular and favorite thespian Bill Murray. The father-son Freudian psychology in Anderson’s pictures is so simple and so prominent that in the new movie Murray plays the same role that Gene Hackman had played in the superior The Royal Tenenbaums.

Life Aquatic is Anderson’s most ambitious effort to date, but also his worst, or least successful, in terms of execution. The serio-comedy displays his quirks and eccentricities but without the charm and melancholy tone that usually go along with them. Rhythm-wise, the whole movie seems to be off.

The movie is meant to be a high-seas adventure comedy about a washed-up oceanographer named Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), who’s going through a severe mid-life crisis, searching for love, revenge, and redemption in what might be his ultimate aquatic quest. Plying the waters, Zissou embarks on a journey into a realm of one-eyed pirates, exotic islands, deadly sharks, and, as in every Anderson film, a maelstrom of human yearnings set adrift.

Who’s Steve Zissou Inspired by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the French Oceanographer-filmmaker who died in 1997, he’s a legendary underwater explorer, notorious blow-hard, a man known around the world for his documentaries about the teeming life beneath the deep sea. But, like the Royal Tenenbaum, life is rough on Zissou these days. First, a ravenous jaguar shark kills his best friend and partner Esteban. Then, rumors begin to spread that he’s losing his grip and unique touch. Furthermore, out of the blue comes a genuine Southern gentleman, an Air Kentucky co-pilot named Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), who claims to be Zissou’s long-lost son, but there’s a chance he is not telling the truth.

The always imperious and occasionally endearing Zissou is a career-oriented egotist, committed at all costs to his mission of making his most epic film to date, the one that will wage vengeance on the jaguar shark. We viewers know that Zissou is bound for a comeuppance and that he needs to melt down and become the father he never thought he could be, so that he could regain a sense of decency and nobility.

A road movie set in the sea, Life Aquatic features a large gallery of colorful personalities: Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), a mysteriously pregnant journalist covering the story of the expedition; Eleanor (Anjelica Huston, who played a similar role in Royal Tenenbaums), Zissou’s brilliant wife and vice-president of the Zissou Society; an admiring German engineer, Klaus Daimer (Willem Dafoe); and Zissou’s arch nemesis and rival oceanographer, Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum).

Zissou’s crew is no less colorful. It’s comprised of Zissou’s septuagenarian producer Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon), a physicist and original score composer Vladimir Wolodarsky (Noah Taylor), the bond company stooge Bill Ubell (Bud Cort), and Pele dos Santos (Seu Jorge), the Brazilian Safety Expert who regularly serenades the team with haunting Portuguese rendition of David Bowie songs.

As if the above personae are not eccentric enough, the cast also features a perennially topless script girl, Anne-Marie Sakowitz (Robyn Cohen); cameraman Vikram Ray (Waris Ahluwalia), frogman Bobby Ogata (Neils Koizumi); and editor and soundman Renzo Pietro (Pawel Wdowczak).

A movie in which the most exotic elements are the screen names of the characters–Zissou, Esteban, Alistair Hennessey–and the objects–the boat is called The Belafonte–signals trouble from the get-go. Further trouble is signaled by the budgets for Anderson’s pictures, which are escalating with each effort: $5 million for Bottle Rocket, $11 million for Rushmore, $30 million for Royal Tenenbaums, and $50 million for Life Aquatic.

The budgets would have been less relevant if Anderson’s pictures showed new direction, bigger scope, or new visual style. But Anderson has been over-praised for his quirky and fresh narratives, for being the spokesperson of his generation, the way that Woody Allen was in the 1960 and 1970s.

In Rushmore, Anderson’s imaginative audacity was matched with a bravura execution, elements that are missing from Life Aquatic. As for the alarming repetitions, all of Anderson’s films are coming-of-age fantasy-comedies, whether the protagonist is an adolescent (Rushmore) or a mature man (Royal Tenenbaums and the new movie). After seeing Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, we critics were impressed with Anderson’s wistful black comedies, because they were a far cry from the hackneyed writing and formulaic plots of most Hollywood youth-oriented comedies.

We also liked his oddball characters. In Bottle Rocket, Anderson told the story of two aimless misfits (played by brothers Owen and Luke Wilson), who halfheartedly attempt to turn to a life of crime. In Rushmore, we empathized with the fifteen-year-old prep school oddball who enlists the help of a cynical tycoon (Murray) in winning the affections of his teacher.

Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson’s only popular film, showed a more ambitious scope, and a far more glamorous cast. With wild strokes, Anderson painted a three-generational dysfunctional family, headed by an errant, neglectful father (Hackman), whose main wish is to reunite with his clan before his presumably impending death. The picture’s style divided critics. Some liked the film’s literary format, stylized visuals, postcard-like framing, and radically shifting tone.

It may be ironic to fault Life Aquatic for being too ambitious in aspiration, considering the cinematic mediocrity that surrounds it. The movie is genre-defying and incomparable to any other Hollywood comedy this season. However, is it enough to make for a good, smart, and funny picture David O. Russell’s quirky existential comedy, I Heart Huckabee, also didn’t really work, but at least it was original.

In Life Aquatic, Anderson places his recurring themes and characters in an ocean-set adventure, rife with chases, shoot-outs, preying sharks, and underwater wonders. But, alas, the quirkiness is forced. On the surface, it feels as if Anderson took risks with his new movie, throwing himself into a chaotic exterior film. However, Life Aquatic proves that a genre-inspired film may not be his forte.

Anderson’s attempt to use established conventions from the high-sea fantasy genre, and at the same time comment and spoof them, just indicates the arduousness of his effort, and the artificiality of the film and film-within-film.

Fasten your seat belts, this ocean adventure is rough and bumpy but not particularly enjoyable.