[18 June 2014]
Wes Anderson directs the kinds of films that pretentious people call brilliant and brilliant people call pretentious. Many in the middle, meanwhile, simply consider them weird or inaccessible. However, strangely, Anderson’s films manage to be appealing and hard to look away from, no matter what the hell might be going on in the picture.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is no exception to these distinctions. Part of the reason for this is Anderson’s remarkable attention to detail and the tiny little things in each frame, and the way he uses these smaller elements to foreshadow larger events later in the film. We never know what is and is not important, so we must pay attention to everything we can. Of course, Anderson is just plain odd, too.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou centers on the title character, oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), something of an eccentric Americanized Jacques Cousteau (to whom Anderson dedicated this film) who is also the central character in his Cousteau-esque documentary series “The Life Aquatic”. A recent episode of Zissou’s show features the loss of his best friend Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassell) to the jaws of a Jaguar Shark, which most of the oceanography world doubts exists. Nonetheless, Zissou plans to make the death of the rare (if extant) shark the focal point of his next documentary.
That is, of course, just the setup, but the plot hardly follows the linear path that Zissou envisions. As the tale progresses, the depths of this film become more and more murky and strange. First, Owen Wilson shows up as Zissou’s possible long-lost son Ned, to whom he takes an immediate liking and invites to join the crew and his life.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou increases its eccentricity at every twist and turn along its way in a very Andersonesque kind of way. This is good in that it defies convention; it is anything but predictable, and keeps the viewer interested if only to find out what curious thing might happen next. On the other hand, Anderson’s script, co-written with frequent collaborator Noah Baumbach, often feels as if it is reaching for weird just for the sake of weird; or, at least, just for the sake of being unconventional.
Jeff Goldblum’s appearance as a rival oceanographer as well as a rival for the affections of Zissou’s wife (Anjelica Houston) serves to set up waves that cause dominoes to fall all over the place, but are these plot points logical evolutions or contrivances excused by the surreal nature by which they are related? A pregnant reporter (Cate Blanchett) arrives to document the events of Zissou’s Ahab vs. Moby Dick-style quest, in the process complicating matters between Zissou and Ned. Her presence upsets the boat just as much as a marauding band of pirates do later. As entertaining as the film can be, one must wonder if Baumbach and Anderson threw every idea they had against the proverbial wall to see what would stick.
That said, if Anderson’s goal was to allow for plot contrivances due to surreality, then the director largely succeeds, as Anderson is a master of distraction. He uses strange colors, evoking memories of the real Jacques Cousteau’s episodes. His use of stop-motion animation is inventive, if dated. The odd, incongruous moments such as Bill Murray’s description and showcasing his boat as part of a weird stage show that couldn’t possibly happen heighten the bizarre nature of the film.
All these meticulously conceived distractions keep the entire film feeling just far enough outside of reality to allow just about anything to get by the cynical traps of the mind. That said, when Anderson pushes back into the realm of the real, the audience may either not buy or not care about what is happening onscreen. Sure, surprise may be what Anderson is going for when he shifts gears this quickly, but it is unclear if the surprise is worth all the trickery. Does the audience even know or feel that it is being surprised?
This may or may not be the case, which is one of the many reasons that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is the kind of movie that is susceptible to multiple viewings, in the hopes one might figure it all out. Does the film stand up well to multiple viewings? Many of its loose ends do unravel further, yes, but these too can be excused when the full tapestry that is the film comes into better focus.
Of course, it’s not a perfect film, but it does remain entertaining and interesting regardless. From Murray’s subdued dance moves to the beat of his helmet radio to the oddball hot air balloon ride to the deadpan dialogue itself, there is always something strange and fun to see, even when parts of the film collapse under their own weight.
The Criterion Collection’s thoroughness in film preservation and providing interesting extras is again exemplified in this Blu-ray release. The film has been beautifully cleaned up, which makes for a wonderful viewing experience of the surreal pastel-like colors above water and the strange otherworldly explorations underwater.
Extras include an inlay card with an interview between Anderson and his brother Eric as well as interviews, deleted scenes stills galleries, a trailer, a documentary, an Italian talk show episode featuring Baumbach and Anderson and feature length commentary with the same writer and director themselves.
While one may expect a little more consistency from a film with such acclaim, consistency is hardly the order of the day when one is making iconoclastic and unconventional movies like Anderson does. Is this yet another case of weird for the sake of weird? When the credits roll, if the movie does its job, the real question is whether or not the audience should care.