A film by Wes Anderson
If you have seen one of Wes Anderson's previous three films ("Bottle Rocket", "Rushmore", or "The Royal Tenenbaums") then you have a very good idea what sort of movie "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" is. "The Life Aquatic" is a very quirky sort of comedy and it is very similar to Anderson's previous movies, though with a bigger budget which he uses for special effects that would only fit in a Wes Anderson movie. The basic plot of the movie is that Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is an oceanographer in the mold of a Jacques Cousteau. Steve makes documentary films about his voyages and discoveries and once he was very famous and successful. Now his films are not making very much money at all. On his last expedition, one of his crew, an old friend, was killed by some sort of shark that Zissou names a "jaguar shark". While such a creature would not normally exist, the movie spends its time showing us increasingly exotic and unlikely sea creatures (and this is where the effects budget went).
At a screening of his latest film, Zissou announces the subject of his next: he is going to track down the jaguar shark which killed his friend, and kill it. When asked what the scientific value of this would be, he answers simply, "Revenge". This, from an oceanographer. Around this time, Steve also meets a man claiming to be his son, Ned (Owen Wilson). Steve immediately takes to Ned, and invites him to be a part of Team Zissou. Steve and his crew set out to sea to track the jaguar shark and everything that can go wrong does go wrong. To be honest, Team Zissou feels like a bunch of amateurs.
As with any Wes Anderson movie, the plot is not why we watch the movie. The reason we go to a Wes Anderson movie is the humor, the absurd interaction of the characters and increasingly odd situations. There is a tone, a general ambiance to a Wes Anderson movie, and "The Life Aquatic" has it in spades. Everyone speaks in a dry, slightly ironic manner where no dialogue feels real (except for that of Cate Blanchett's character). This has worked in "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" because it seemed to fit the characters and the situation. Simply, I believed the situations and the actions of the characters in those movies (as I did in "Bottle Rocket"). There was a deeper sense of intelligence in the humor in Anderson's previous work that is missing here. There is a lot of humor here, like the interns that continually are being tortured by Zissou, the red hats and the fact that everyone carries a glock. But, whatever it was that held "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" together is missing here. Instead we have several action sequences (really), an attack by pirates, and a three legged dog. The cast also includes Angelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, and Bud Cort.
A Wes Anderson movie usually takes several viewings for everything to really seep in and sometimes just to get exactly what is going on in the movie, and perhaps "The Life Aquatic" will be far more rewarding on the second or third viewing. But this movie was a bit of a let down in the theatre. I loved "The Royal Tenenbaums" and really enjoyed "Rushmore", but "The Life Aquatic" seemed somewhat pointless and this was one of my most anticipated movies of the year. Grade: B-