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‘The Life Aquatic’ Remains Wes Anderson’s Masterpiece

Director's 2004 film let him embrace his true vision while dividing critics

Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” was the filmmaker’s first lavish, wildly stylish and extremely divisive work.

The momentum of “Rushmore” (1998) and “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) allowed Anderson final cut privilege and immediate auteur status, a deserved title, to be sure, but not a guarantee that audiences would embrace all of his eccentric visions.

Case in point – “The Life Aquatic” had a wide Christmas day opening and baffled most audiences and critics. Twenty years later, it’s a transitional work, ushering Anderson into the consistent filmmaking and storytelling approaches that would mark his finest films.

Undoubtedly, this is still a strange and unabashedly offbeat look at a hard to like character. It’s also a masterpiece and among the most essential works of the early aughts.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) Official Trailer #1 - Bill Murray Movie HD

Bill Murray stars as Zissou, a world-famous Jacques Cousteau-like adventurer, who creates engaging documentaries on his many adventures that are more distinct than his abilities as an oceanographer. Zissou seemingly does little without a camera to capture it, creating a clear distinction between the celebrity with a library of recorded and colorful sea voyages, and the contradictory, frustrating, even morose man he is when he isn’t being documented.

Zissou is a failure as a father, as he learns of Ned (Owen Wilson), an unheard-of son who is hastily made a newly-appointed crew member and keeps his marriage to Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) at a barely functional level.

Zissou’s crew adores him, particularly Klaus (Willem Dafoe, terrific as usual) and are game in keeping him a step ahead of his professional rival, Alistair (Jeff Goldblum). Adding further complication to Zissou’s life is the arrival of a reporter (Cate Blanchett) who becomes a romantic rival between father and son.

There’s also the shark that ate Zissou’s best friend that has become his Moby Dick and a pair of dolphins who, in Zissou’s words, don’t do much of anything.

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It opens with an Italian gala premiere of Zissou’s latest motley documentary – Anderson and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach (who has a wordless cameo in one scene) tease the denizens and decorum of the high-end film festival circuit.

“The Life Aquatic” was Anderson’s first lavish film and immersion into a quasi-magical realism environment. It also presents a world as a living diorama, as Zissou’s vessel, the Belafonte, is presented in a vivid, highly theatrical manner.

The set design allows us to experience the Belafonte as though we could view it as a pop-up book or a stage setting. A nice touch is when Zissou informs us that “the observation deck, I came up with in a dream.”

Bittersweet Reminiscences of The Life Aquatic

Adding a strange but undeniably tasty texture to all of this are Henry Selick’s magical stop-motion creatures (only seen fleetingly) and the frequent Portuguese renditions of David Bowie songs by Seu Yorge. There’s also the use of Mark Mothersbaugh’s “Gut Feeling” during a killer montage.

I saw Mothersbaugh and his band, Devo, perform this onstage a few years after the movie came out and the audience went nuts.

Anderson’s film is more about filmmaking than underwater exploration, as Team Zissou is a dysfunctional, only somewhat competent extended family, all of whom hold a fondness and extended grudge toward their captain.

Murray’s performance is perfection. As funny as he is here, Murray always taps into the truth of the character and never tries to make him cloying or likable. The Murray/Goldblum rivalry is hilarious and, while the many adventures of Team Zissou are, indeed, exotic and weird, what is always the most compelling are the relationships among the crew.

Blanchett takes a character that could have been an afterthought and makes it special. Dafoe is hilarious but his character, arguably the neediest of Team Zissou, is also deeply touching. For Klaus, Zissou is family.

For all of Anderson’s wildly stylish touches, the heart and emotional center is strong.

“The Life Aquatic” is also about the damage our fathers inflict on us and how we survive them. Most of Anderson’s films are about fractured family units. At one point, Zissou declares “I hate fathers and I never wanted to be one.”

Murray plays him as is soulful and a visionary but also an ass. Zissou is too sad and self-absorbed to fully enjoy his fame, alternating between being inspiring and hateful.

This is that period where Murray was doing his best work, ranging from “Mad Dog & Glory” (1993), “Rushmore” (1998), “Lost in Translation” (2003), “Broken Flowers” (2005), “Get Low” (2010), “Hyde Park on Hudson” (2012), “St. Vincent” (2014), “Rock the Kasbah” (a deep cut and hidden gem from 2015) and “On the Rocks” (2020).

Who would’ve thought the guy who started his film career in “Meatballs” (1979) would wind up being such a damn good actor?

It Just Doesn't Matter! - Meatballs (6/9) Movie CLIP (1979) HD

Many of Anderson’s films (most of which, by the way, are master classes in filmmaking) feature Murray and showcase the actor willing to be up for the challenge of playing men at odds with themself and lacking confidence (the anti-Venkman).

Anderson is just one of the filmmakers who allows Murray to stretch and reveal startling depths as an actor. “The Life Aquatic,” my favorite of Anderson’s films so far, is a gloriously moving film about shaping our legacy.

As a transitional work for Anderson and a milestone for Murray, it’s a thing of beauty.

One Comment

  1. You need to watch Wes Anderson’s movies in the theater because otherwise you’ll constantly pause it.

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