I’ve often wondered where the witless geezers who have had it in for Wes Anderson since Rushmore get off. They bitch and moan about the fall of independent film, decry it’s new leader, and wax poetic about a time before critics were compelled to use “too cute by half” in two-thirds of their goddamn reviews. They’ve never understood the genius of Wes Anderson, the Salinger-esque, calculated whimsy of his films; the clever banter, the droll satire, the amusing eccentricity of his characters.
But, with Anderson’s new effort, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, those bastards finally got it right. It’s not that Anderson’s whimsy has worn thin, or that his sense of irony has grown tiresome. It’s that his detached irony has nothing to detach itself from — the emotional core is missing, the witty repartee is all but gone, and Anderson fails to flesh out his characters or give life to their idiosyncrasies. Life Aquatic is listless and - except for a few moments of Bottle Rocket style preposterousness — it’s just downright dull.
The film follows famed oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) — a kind of pot-smoking Jacques Cousteau crossed with … Bill Murray — who is in the throes of a midlife crisis; his wife, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) has just left him; due to his waning reputation, he no longer has the clout to get his documentaries funded; his rival, who is also Eleanor’s ex-husband (Jeff Goldblum) is making a mockery of him both personally and professionally; and the narcissistically named Team Zissou has just finished a disastrous voyage in which a seemingly mythical jaguar shark has eaten Steve’s best friend.
In a bit of good fortune, however, Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), an airline pilot for Air Kentucky, who may or may not be Steve’s illegitimate son, arrives with funding for Team Zissou’s next project — an underwater adventure tracking the team as it attempts to find the jaguar shark and do away with it dynamite-style. Unfortunately, along the voyage, Filipino pirates attack their ship, The Belefonte, and make away with their bond holder, played by Bud Cort (who, it seems, is finally old enough to date Maude), which allows Team Zissou to engineer a rescue attempt, a ridiculously hilarious shoot-out so over the top that if fails as even action movie parody, though it is the first piece of the film that doesn’t seem muffled or stuck within Wes Anderson’s beautifully rendered, glassed-in world.
Though all of the typical elements are present, nothing seems to gel in Life Aquatic. The charismatic flair of Anderson’s usual writing partner, Owen Wilson, is missing in both the script and in Wilson’s performance as Ned; he is asked to be more subdued than usual, and when Wilson isn’t showing off his self-satisfied smirk, he is all but lost. The jokes are mistimed, and the performances — particularly the stolid Cate Blanchett as the journalist/love interest — are under acted and soulless, save for Willem Dafoe’s amusingly overeager and needy German sycophant.
Not even Murray can break through the airlessness of Life Aquatic; the whole Bill Murray shtick is buried beneath the film’s abstract worldview and off-the-wall minutia, submerged by Anderson’s direct camera addresses. With the exception of pitiful three-legged dog, the characters elicit no sympathy, and the film’s cathartic ending feels empty, lacking any emotional tension to purge.
Anderson, with the liberal assistance of Mark Mothersbaugh, has always been able to make his scenes resonate with the perfect piece of music, but even here the director fails this time. Instead, he offers us the silly Farellyesque contrivance of Seu Jorge’s samba reinterpretations of early David Bowie songs, in Portuguese, a novelty that works exactly once.
I’m at a loss, really, to explain Anderson’s failure in Life Aquatic. Here is a filmmaker whose every movie has immediately jumped into my top five list, whose cutesiness and overwrought cleverness I’ve always defended. That this film turned out so bad would almost be heartbreaking, if it weren’t for the fact that my heart shriveled up and dried away three-fourths of the way through the movie.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou / Dustin Rowles
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()