Wes Anderson has made a name for himself writing and directing a number of creatively off-kilter comedies that often give actors a chance to shine in unusually nuanced roles. His eye for the idiosyncratic lends authenticity to every feature he’s ever made, but it can just as easily cheapen the overall product by creating an air of pretention or a sense of being quirky for the sole sake of being quirky. How much of that he pours into each film and how high the audience’s tolerance for that tendency is have a heavy bearing on the overall enjoyment of Anderson’s work, which is a shame because the final product often has an incredible cast like Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, and Cate Blanchett (as we do in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) and elements that give film a very identifiable stamp of artistry even as it weaves a rather unconventional tale. Unfortunately, Steve Zissou’s tale is one of Anderson’s most scattershot works that relies far too heavily on its incredible cast to prop it up (but they do, and they even elevate it to something grand).
A tragic outing in the filming of their last documentary that had one of its cinematographers eaten by a never-before-seen “jaguar shark” leaves marine life enthusiast Steve Zissou (Murray) and his crew (Dafoe, Noah Taylor, Seu Jorge, Robyn Cohen, Waris Ahluwalia) in a financial hole that neither they, Zissou’s ex-wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), nor their long-time producer (Michael Gambon) can climb out of. Combine that with the disbelief that Zissou’s claims of this new shark are legitimate, and it seems as if the once beloved documentarian’s career has reached its unceremonious end. All that changes, however, when Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), who may or may not be Zissou’s son out of wedlock, shows up with several hundred thousand dollars in inheritance to spend as he gets to know the man he hopes is his father. With new funding in hand, the expedition to find and possibly kill the jaguar shark (as an act of vengeance) sets off only to be beset by the aches of its aged vessel, the skeptical news story of ride-along journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), kidnapping, and pirates.
It’s hard to find an Anderson film with a better cast (save for Fantastic Mr. Fox – which essentially reunites this cast and then adds George Clooney, Meryl Treep, and Jason Schwartzman), and they all give performances that stand as the best thing The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou has to offer. At first glance, that actually seems like high praise because of the cast’s pedigree, until you take a long hard look at a story that can’t settle on a coherent direction and instead runs off in a dozen different directions. Is this the story of a man coming to terms with fatherhood? A man discovering his idol isn’t as great as he’d imagined? A love triangle that is really just a normal love story that can’t decide if it wants to exist at all? Is that story about finding the shark really the main plot? How about the kidnapping of a crew member? Or a rivalry and a second love triangle? Anderson’s film pays lip service to each of these plot points without ever really developing any, save for maybe the first two, beyond a cursory glance. The rest are just tacked on in an effort to keep things happening on the screen in cleverly framed shots that are visually splendid but substantially void.
Were it not for the cast making each of the film’s random scenes so superb, the whole affair would be a mess unworthy of the time unless you’re a film student looking for some tips on frame composition. For that latter purpose, The Life Aquatic bursts at the seams with greatness, but for characterization, plot, and just about everything that isn’t acting, underwater adventure is sadly underwhelming. The performances succeed at keeping it afloat, though, and so it becomes a fun romp that lets you savor peculiar interactions between Dafoe, Wilson, and Murray which never disappoint. Or rather, they don’t disappoint until the film tries to string them into a coherent story, at which point, disappointment abounds.
Oh, and any film that can boast some Henry Selick stop-motion animation (which is used for some spectacular marine life creations) gets high marks on the visual spectrum – but The Life Aquatic already had that thanks to Anderson’s eye for detail, so Selick’s work is really just additional icing on a half-baked cake. It’s pretty though, so there’s that.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
As with many Criterion releases, we get a nice smattering of extras including: a surprisingly lengthy (58-minute) documentary on the film’s creation which is a lot of Anderson and Murray palling about in front of the camera; deleted scenes; an interview with Noah Baumbach (writer) and Anderson on the Italian talk show Mondo Monda; an audio commentary by Anderson and Baumbach; an interview with the film’s score composer and Devo co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh; a veritable jukebox collection of Seu Jorge singing David Bowie songs in Portuguese; a production journal by Matthew Gray Gubler (who played an intern); cast and crew interviews; and stills and a trailer.
The booklet insert features a transcribed interview between Wes Anderson and his brother.
"The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (The Criterion Collection)" is on sale May 27, 2014 and is rated R. Comedy, Drama. Directed by Wes Anderson. Written by Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach. Starring Anjelica Huston, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe.