revisiting The Life Aquatic

July 12, 2006

The Life Aquatic
Continuing my crusade to bring myself up to speed on all the films in my DVD collection, I decided to rewatch the 2004 dramedy The Life Aquatic last evening. I remember first seeing the film on Christmas Day 2004, and though I was certainly anticipating it eagerly based on the quirky trailer, it proved even more delightful than I could have imagined; experiencing it again now with the superb Criterion Collection edition is a pleasure.

Bill Murray’s deadpan, tragicomic performance–strong shades of his role in Lost in Translation–as washed-up oceanographer Steve Zissou is itself reason enough to watch, but with such a strong ensemble cast it becomes an irresistible way to spend two hours. Standouts include Willem Dafoe as Klaus, a German with comically deep insecurities (he’s also, for reasons unknown, the only one with a pom-pom on his red cap); Michael Gambon as Zissou’s fabulously British producer Oseary Drakoulias; Jeff Goldblum as “well-insured” nemesis documentarian Alistair Hennesey; and Owen Wilson, playing it straight for once, as Ned Plimpton, a former airline pilot who just might be Steve’s son. There’s also the inspired inclusion of a pitiable set of unpaid interns, along for the ride–thanklessly, of course–in exchange for school credit, and a “bond company stooge” sent to keep Steve on budget who gets far more of an adventure than he had planned on.

The plot is rather thin and really incidental to much of what goes on, but it involves Steve’s Ahab-like search for the “jaguar shark” (which may or may not exist) that devoured his friend Esteban during the filming of his last documentary. Mostly, though, this serves as an excuse for a string of loosely connected episodes and variations on themes involving middle age, fathers and sons, and….wait for it…the meaning of life. To be honest, there aren’t many definite conclusions or solutions presented here; director Wes Anderson’s real talent is for creating moods and prompting surprisingly deep self-examination while charming us with outrageously absurd dialogue and situations.

Yes, there’s quite a bit of silliness to offset what might otherwise be a depressingly serious film, and while some of these scenes, such as Steve’s improbably successful–and shockingly violent–effort to retake his ship from a band of marauders, strike me as ultimately irrelevant, they sure are a lot of fun. And, if nothing else, there’s always something to interesting to look at or listen to, thanks to the plethora of stop-motion animated sea creatures who inhabit Steve’s fantastical, decidedly retro world and the ineffable hipness of Brazilian musician Seu Jorge’s acoustic versions of David Bowie songs that accompany many scenes (Jorge plays a crew member in the film). What’s not to love?

–D. S. W.

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