out of Five
Running time: 118
Stylish, quirky, enjoyable comedy-drama, with a superb ensemble cast and a terrific soundtrack - this is a treat for fans of Anderson’s work, although the uninitiated may be less impressed.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is writer-director Wes Anderson’s fourth film, after Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums and it shares both cast members (Bill Murray, Angelica Huston, Owen Wilson) and themes (fathers and sons, mentors and prodigies, etc.) with his earlier films, as well as a distinctive quirkiness that is peculiar to each of Anderson’s movies. The result is a treat for fans of Anderson’s work, even if anyone going along expecting a Bill Murray comedy is going to be more than a little confused.
Written With Murray In Mind
Anderson wrote the part of Steve Zissou with Bill Murray in mind and, frankly, it shows. Zissou is a Jacques Cousteau-like adventurer/film-maker, obsessed with documenting his various expeditions, providing he can find a producer to stump up the cash. On his previous excursion, his best friend (Seymour Cassel) was eaten by a “Jaguar Shark” and Zissou vows to track down the shark, “fight it” and kill it for his next film.
He’s surrounded by a loyal team that includes his wife, Eleanor (Angelica Huston), his fiercely protective engineer Klaus (Willem Dafoe), his original score composer Wolodarsky (Noah Taylor) and Bud Cort as “the Bond Company Stooge” (who is, he reminds us, also a human being).
On this particular trip, however, Zissou also has to contend with: his arch-rival (and his wife’s ex-husband) Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum); a naval officer named Ned (Owen Wilson), who may or may not be his illegitimate son; and an inquisitive, heavily pregnant British reporter (Cate Blanchett), not to mention a vicious pirate attack and a potential mutiny amongst the interns, led by perennially topless script girl Anne-Marie (Robyn Cohen).
Superb Performances And Delightful Design
The performances are superb, particularly Murray, who relishes the chance to finally take centre stage, after supporting roles in Rushmore and Tenebaums. Huston, Wilson, Blanchett and Gambon are all equally good, but the stand-out is Willem Dafoe as the easily-offended, overly emotional Klaus - he’s easily the funniest character in the film and his every line is guaranteed to get a laugh.
The wealth of detail in the design of the film is delightful. Particularly impressive is the five-storey interior ‘cut-away’ set of the ship, The Belafonte, as well as the use of animated (and invented) sea-creatures, using stop-motion animation courtesy of Henry “Nightmare Before Christmas” Selick. Similarly, Anderson’s obsession with bizarre uniforms (the boiler suits in Bottle Rocket, the tight red tracksuits in Tenenbaums) reaches new heights with the pastel blue/red woolly hat combo sported by Zissou’s team-mates.
Anderson’s films are also known for their superb soundtracks and The Life Aquatic is no exception, utilising, amongst other things, acoustic versions of David Bowie songs, performed in Portuguese by cast member Seu Jorge - this leads to some beautiful moments, such as the pirate attack to the strains of the countdown in Space Oddity.
The film isn’t entirely without problems. For one thing, the lines between Anderson’s film and the film-within-a-film that Zissou is making are confusingly blurred, resulting in an inconsistency of tone that is frequently jarring
That said, it’s worth noting that, as a general rule, Anderson’s films improve immeasurably on repeated viewings and that is definitely the case here. If you can get past the initially off-putting changes in tone there’s a huge amount to enjoy and the film is full of wonderfully quotable lines and delightful little moments that will stay with you long after you leave the cinema.