January 12, 2005

The Life Aquatic: A Beached Whale of a Movie **

by JEREMIAH LEWIS, American Digest Film Editor
2 stars out of 5

"Hold on, we're going down, way down."

When Bill Murray looks and acts more depressed than he did in Lost in Translation, you know there's trouble on the wind. In this case, he's signed on as Steve Zissou, low-rent Cousteau type deep sea documentarian (the Michael Moore, if you will, of oceanography), and leader of Team Zissou, which is basically a "home away at sea" for loners, drifters, and losers--the sort that populate all of Wes Anderson's films and in a way, make up his stock in trade.

What writer/director Anderson did for the Father Figure Makes Up For Years of Bad Parenting genre in Rushmore and The Royal Tennebaums has all but been washed away in this virtually soulless entry. Where once was at least the substance of character has become cliche and caricature; the merest hint of story peeks out behind a curtain so overstitched and sewn with the quirky and the absurd, one questions whether Anderson is even aware of what's lacking.

Clearly, Anderson has a gift. Not everyone can write 36 unrelated items on a whiteboard and then stitch them together into a screenplay that has, at the very least an entirely unique voice. But that's the problem. Anderson is so intent on the selling of each new strange addition to the story that he forgets

that what made the quirks so wonderful in his first efforts was the story, the rock solid story that never bowed to its marketing potential. The Life Aquatic is only marketing potential. Its return simply never materializes.

Steve Zissou (Murray) is a deep-sea explorer and filmmaker, whose last decade of movies have done poorly; indeed, the last of his company's investors have refused to bankroll his latest idea: a film of him chasing down and killing the Jaguar Shark that killed his best friend Esteban (Seymour Cassel).

Enter Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a Kentucky pilot who may or may not be Steve's son, and who happens to have a large inheritance and offers to invest in Steve's film. In gratitude or guilt, Steve asks Ned to join the crew of Team Zissou. Ned of course agrees (because it's what Wes Anderson wants him to do) and dons the red cap/blue speedo ensemble. But wait, there are more faces left to learn!

The lovely and withering Cate Blanchett looks tired here as a pregnant reporter doing a cover story on the formerly great Steve. Steve likes her, but she dislikes his pretention and assaholic behaviour; she reads stories aloud to her unborn child, sleeps with Ned, and generally looks pretty, though there's not a lot for her to do.

Rounding out the gang is Willem Dafoe as the homoerotically needy Klaus, a jealous German who tries to make the most of his bankrupt character; Anjelica Huston as Steve's smile-challenged ex-wife and the "brains of Team Zissou"; and Jeff Goldblum as Steve's rival Alistair Hennessey, playing the flamboyant playboy prick to a tee.

It's more zany then zen here as Steve and Ned come to terms with their relationship, and Steve comes to realize that he has been more absent a father and husband than he could ever have imagined. While Anderson would like the moral fiber to hit home, it barely makes a dent in the overwhelming absurdity of it all.

Not that he doesn't try. The irony of the story is that it is essentially a documentary about the making of a documentary--clever, and the look and feel of Aquatic is very much in the same vein as Zissou's own documentaries. Henry Selick provides amusing animations for the various mythical sea creatures, and there are some interesting moments as Team Zissou stage a ground assault on an abandoned island hotel in tune with a lusty orchestrated version of Starman.

Steve's films are an example of the worst kind of self-adulation, yet his fame world-wide is even more fuel for his aggrandizing nature. His crew only adore him, and the ever-patient Huston is at least sympathetic to Zissou's work, if not Steve himself. Ned questions and cavorts around Steve's eminence, yet toes the line when Steve's abnormal egotism prevents him from growing closer.

Is there a character here that we can really care about? Possibly Blanchett's Jane, who really is the only honest person in a sea of phoniness. Yet without much to go on, we are left with a sketch of a nice person caught up with a bunch of hypocrites, losers, and idolized wash-ups.

The redeeming factor here is the soundtrack, with a number of David Bowie songs played on classical guitar and sung by Seu Jorge, and an amusing and appropriate assortment of electronica, indie rock, and alternative.

If you happened to see the trailer, you managed to see all the best parts, hear the best music, and take away what little substance Wes Anderson had to offer in this outing. Stay away from The Life Aquatic until it comes out on DVD. By then you will perhaps be rewarded with a little director commentary to explain what he was thinking when he made this stinker.

[ ** American Digest Internet Extras: Is The Life Aquatic a sequel to The Exploding Whale ?

Our cameras stopped rolling immediately after the blast. The humor of the entire situation suddenly gave way to a run for survival as huge chunks of whale blubber fell everywhere. Pieces of meat passed high over our heads, while others were falling at our feet. The dunes were rapidly evacuated as spectators escaped both the falling debris and the overwhelming smell.-- All Things Exploding Whale ]

Jeremiah Lewis of Fringe reviews films both at his site and American Digest. Lewis can be reached directly at jeremiah.lewis@gmail.com

Posted by Vanderleun at January 12, 2005 8:52 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

The irony of the story is that it is essentially a documentary about the making of a documentary--clever...

This self-referential crap was mildly amusing a quarter century ago. Then we all read Godel, Escher, Bach, got the joke, and moved on. But not Hollywood, and not our "serious" writers. Not clever, just boring.

Posted by: slimedog at January 12, 2005 1:25 PM

The author of this article is an example of some one who just doesn't "get it". The beauty of The Life Aquatic is that you have to have some understanding of symbolism and character development and what is going on behind the story. It's the same concept of reading between the lines in a book. Wes Anderson shows you exactly what you need to see to get the most out of this amazing movie. I suppose the world needs Jeremiah Lewis's to give 5 stars to anything with Angelina Jolie or Ben Affleck in it, but it sure is frustrating when a "professional critic" wouldn't know a good movie if it hit him in the face.

Posted by: Garrett at August 26, 2005 4:24 PM

This critic needs to pull the stick out bad and go watch there crap dramedies, and drive there prius, and drink there sh*t wine. while I sit back and enjoy murray's greatest performance of his senior carrer

Posted by: John at November 23, 2010 6:13 AM

Garrett is absolutely right.

Posted by: David at November 2, 2011 12:29 PM