“Are you a bug, Bill Murray?”
— GZA, Coffee and Cigarettes
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou begins with a show. That is, the premiere — with red curtains and a well-heeled, well-behaved audience — of the latest installment of an ongoing oceanographic documentary project, called The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou Number 12: The Jaguar Shark, Part One. The film follows a formula, awkward and familiar even if you haven’t seen it before. The Jacques Cousteau-like Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) stands before a chart to indicate the coming voyage, introduces each red-wool-capped member of Team Zissou by age, personality traits, and nationality, and then explains each step of the adventure as it happens.
This includes the demise of 52-year-old Steve’s best friend Esteban (Seymour Cassell), who is eaten (“chewed!”) by a jaguar shark, so named by Steve, who witnesses the event and then reports it, stricken. “He’s got hydrogen psychosis!” yelps Steve’s pathologically eager-to-please first mate Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), “The crazy eye!” And with this trauma, Part One ends.
The curtains close and the viewers within the film shift awkwardly in their royal red chairs as Steve sits on stage, waiting for questions. His plans for Part Two, he asserts, include tracking down that monster creature and killing it. No matter that it might be a previously undiscovered genus, or that the audience thinks he’s nutty, his mission is unfunded (this according to a newsflash from financier Drakoulias [Michael Gambon]), or even his crew is skeptical. Steve, anachronistic and literally ungrounded, means to do the manly thing, even if he’s unsure what that means. He is the show.
As it blurs lines between real and not, surfaces and depths, Wes Anderson’s new movie also raises questions about what such lines signify, what sorts of desires and needs they keep in check. The show goes on, whether the players are designated brash and mainstream or alternative, independent, and quirky (like, say, Anderson and his “crew” — repeat performers, folks who work with him repeatedly — have been deemed by a worshipful press). The show creates perpetual expectations and obligations, regrets and hopes, for artists as well as audiences. Both The Life Aquatics — Anderson’s film and Steve’s filmed life — creak a little, exposing seams and efforts to make sense of experience. And both appreciate the artifice that makes real life so entertaining.
In this context (call it the meta- context), Anderson’s Life Aquatic rehearses themes he’s poked at before, in Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, even the simpler, cheaper, defter Bottle Rocket. Yet again, the artist who’s not quite sure of his art finds himself in a father-son entanglement. In this case, even that might not be “real,” in the standard, biologically determined sense: Kentucky Air copilot Ned (Owen Wilson), in uniform on his night off, approaches Steve on premiere night, just as the star adventurer is feeling close to retirement and disappointment, claiming to be a long-lost son, the result of a fleeting and not quite forgotten liaison years back.
Steve starts introducing the kid around as “probably my son,” and invites him to come along for the Belafonte’s last cruise. (The ship is a refitted World War II submarine, all metallic chambers and small spaces.) This doesn’t sit well with Mrs. Zissou, the billionaire chain-smoker Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), who wonders why he “believes” in this boy: “Because he looks up to me,” admits Steve, and even as his guard seems down, his performance is predictable. He’s sad, he’s lonely, he’s looking for legacy or at least a connection that’s not only about money (his wife is not only the “brains” behind Team Zissou, she’s also the backup funding source). And yet his relationships are all about him, unavoidably: Steve will end up using Ned’s money, an inheritance from his recently dead mother, to finance the trip. Steve worries that she’s interested again in her ex, the wealthy, smooth-talking, and “part-gay” Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum).
Klaus, for his part, is jealous instantly that he’s lost his favorite-son-like status, and acts out Steve’s anxiety for him: he and Ned literally slap each other, encounters that would seem slapsticky if they weren’t so accusatory and their faces weren’t so pained. In between the boys steps five-months pregnant journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett). Though the Belafonte crew includes a script girl (Robyn Cohen) who prefers to be topless, Jane ignites all kinds of competition among the boys, in particular the father-sonnish duo. When she probes Steve’s fading relevance and tendency to exaggerate, he snaps back at her in return, finding fault with her: “I think you’re a fake, I think you’re a phony, and I think you’re a bad reporter.” Almost immediately, he wants to take it all back, because he wants her to do the cover story on him, he wants to be loved. Maybe. “I was only trying to defend myself,” he snuffles.
All this aboard the ship, revealed in antic breakaway by the camera, like a dollhouse that features a different, carefully contrived scene in each room: the lab, the library, the editing room. And in this small space, amid the fractiousness, come moments of gentle beauty out of place: the ship’s safety expert Pelé (Seu Jorge, City of God‘s Knockout Ned) punctuates sequences (and records the soundtrack for Steve’s films), singing Bowie songs in Portuguese, so they are at once strange and familiar, like everything else on screen. Indeed, the songs are of a piece with the animated fish (courtesy of Henry Selick) that infect the film with a dulcet childishness, both delicately wondrous and wholly artificial. The fish, the Brazilian singer, even Bill Ubell the “bond company stooge” (Bud Cort) sent to keep tabs on Steve’s spending — all evidence the film’s work, its effort to appear antic and sweet, Wes Anderson’s signature tonal mix.
Also part of this mix is the violence that sustains collective energy and affection. When this erupts onto the film’s surface — as when a crew of Filipino pirates assault Team Zissou and kidnap Bill Ubell — the film breaks down into its component parts, just like the ship breaks down on screen into clever, flattened little sections, floors and rooms and portholes.
The pirates are brutal and abusive, blindfolding the team members and holding knives against their necks. At last, Steve can stand it no more: he must get his revenge on the jaguar shark, he must complete his mission, and so he swings into action, scampering, dodging, shooting, fighting back: this all for the camera rolling on his documentary, captioned as a section of The Life Aquatic. And so, the Anderson film suggests this event didn’t happen quite this way, or was edited to look more heroic and more successful than it was, or maybe was staged completely. And yet, it’s so outright unreal, it may be as real as anything else in either film — the documentary so awkward and invented, the fiction so poignant and unhinged. Steve’s a hero, in his show.