|Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The|
|Written by Dan Macintosh|
|Tuesday, 10 May 2005|
Your appreciation of “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” will be highly dependent upon your feelings about Bill Murray’s new, more reserved comedic persona, as well as how you react to director Wes Anderson’s droll sense of humor. Murray is funny here as Steve Zissou, a washed up oceanographic documentary maker, but he’s not the physically silly character he played in “Caddyshack,” nor the likeable victim he portrayed for “Groundhog Day.” Instead, he plays the role of a difficult man trying to come to grips with what he’s made of his life. When he’s introduced to Ned Plimpton, allegedly his son (played here by Owen Wilson), he thinks he’s found a lost soul he can take under his wing. And for a brief period of time, this relationship gives his “land life” life a new sense of purpose.
Wilson portrays a Southern gentleman from Kentucky that grew up a fan of Murray’s Jacques Cousteau-like film work. Although Plimpton already a successful pilot – all decked out in his pilot’s uniform -- by the time they meet, Zissou still convinces the younger man to give up this respectable career, and join his ragtag sea crew. Even after Plimpton admits that he cannot swim well, Zissou still won’t accept “no” for an answer. Zissou then shows Plimpton the ropes, and as he does so, the viewer gets a detailed overview of Zissou’s aquatic empire, for whatever it’s worth.
This cinematic vessel’s acting crew, by the way, is a stellar one. Angelica Huston plays Zissou’s wife with plenty of upper-class elegance, while Willem Defoe has the role of a German engineer down pat. Wilson’s plays his Southern charm with complete sincerity, whereas Jeff Goldblum’s role as a rival oceanographer is intentionally over the top and perfectly suited to his skills. Cate Blanchett’s pregnant mother-to-be character, Jane Winslett-Richardson, is a woman with the desire to become the perfect mom. For example, she inserts “f-ing,” whenever she’s tempted to cuss, because she wants to give up swearing before the baby is born. Winslett-Richardson is also a reporter out to dig up the dirt on Zissou. But her dirty little job doesn’t keep both Zissou and Plimpton from making plays for her.
Unlike the familiar iconic work of the Cousteau, there is also a whole lot of fantasy mixed in with this film’s otherwise real life sea stories. For instance, when an underwater predator kills Zissou’s partner, Esteban, something called a “jaguar” shark is blamed for this death; such a spotted creature doesn’t exist in the real world. Zissou makes it his life’s final mission to go after the beast, the same way Ahab sought out Moby Dick. In one of the film’s funnier moments, Zissou vows to kill the monster once he finds it, even though his financial backers strongly question the purpose of killing one of God’s creatures in the name of revenge. In other words: What’s the scientific value of that?
For the most part, this is a character-driven movie. Even though pirates attack the Belefonte (Zissou’s ship name), which then leads to extended gunplay and chase scenes, this example of fast-paced action is an exception to the film’s general rule. More often than not, there is primarily a lot of talk about life and how to live it here.
It is sometimes easier to admire this film than it is to enjoy it, if that makes any sense. So while you may not laugh out loud a whole lot, you’ll likely come away with a lot of respect for its producers. For instance, one of the film’s oddly winning touches is the way its soundtrack is filled out with David Bowie songs. But these aren’t merely Bowie songs sung by Bowie, nor are they Bowie songs performed by his musical admirers. Instead, Seu Jorge sings all of these familiar Bowie tracks in Portuguese. Many times, he even serenades the characters on screen, and sets up scenes with a few choice Bowie lyrical lines. These tunes make for many unexpected aural and visual pleasures.
“The Life Aquatic” is one film where the DVD extras are mandatory viewing. In fact, some of these extras are at times more engaging than the film itself. The best of these shorts is an interview segment with Mark Mothersbaugh, who composed the film’s score. Mothersbaugh, as you may recall, is a former member of Devo. In fact, he still wears bottleneck glasses and doesn’t look all that different from the way he did back in his rock ‘n’ roll days. Mothersbaugh has collaborated on all four of Anderson’s films. There’s even an odd connection between the soundtrack of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Anderson’s prior work, and the music for this latest release. Mothersbaugh calls it a kind of musical palindrome, in that he’s taken a few melodic lines from “The Royal Tenenbaums” score, played these notes backwards (utilizing a computer program to reverse them), and used this new melody within the soundtrack of “The Life Aquatic.” This featurette also shows just how heavily Anderson is involved in the music he uses for his films. On screen, Mothersbaugh recalls how Anderson even wrote some of the screenplay for “The Life Aquatic” inside his recording studio at the same time Mothersbaugh was creating its soundtrack. Furthermore, this piece points out the way Anderson prefers high sounds to low sounds, which is why you won’t hear a lot of brass instruments in his movie scores. His direction to Mothersbaugh for “The Life Aquatic” was that he wanted the music to sound as synthetic and electronic as possible, akin to cheesy Casio keyboards. Lastly, this extra feature reveals that when the movie’s fictitious sea crew is doing its work – in a film within a film, if you will -- the music played in the background is strictly the electronic stuff. But when the crew is not making one of its films, Mothersbaugh had musicians play these same notes on natural instruments, to distinguish its real life, from its movie (within a movie) world. Smart, eh?
Another DVD extra concerning the film’s costumes is also revealing. Upon first glance, for instance, it appears as if the seagoing characters are wearing identical red knit caps. But this featurette points out that all of these head coverings are slightly different, exemplified best by Defoe’s knit ball atop his cap. Another featurette is narrated by one of the film’s interns, who – quite logically enough – is also cast in the film as one of the sea crew’s interns. With his handheld camera, he was able to capture an insider’s view of the filmmaking process, which really leads one to believe that these actors had plenty of fun making this movie. A few of these extras don’t quite work, however, such as Albert Maysles’ vague behind-the-scenes documentary, as well as a disorienting interview with Anderson, taken from Italian television. Even with subtitles, this foreign program is tough to sit through.
In “Little Shop of Horrors,” Murray’s masochistic patient character tells Steve Martin’s sadistic dentist how much he respects his professionalism. Similarly, viewers will probably walk away with more respect than love after watching “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.”