‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’ has intriguing characters, beautiful dialogue and nuanced performances

The cast of 'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou'
The cast of ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’

Recently I went on a couple of dates with a beautiful blonde who may or may not have been out of my league. We got along well, I made her laugh, and I thoroughly enjoyed the making out (and the potential for more). But abruptly, after the second date, my phone calls went unreturned. Now, I’m not one to bear ill will at such an early stage, so the experience left me with nothing to say but a declarative “Huh”. I enjoyed the time that we had, but I ended up feeling like there was something that I missed.

Which is the exact feeling I got after watching Wes Anderson’s most recent film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. A quirky, character-driven film with a similar narrative arc to Anderson’s previous The Royal TenenbaumsThe Life Aquatic is an engaging, imaginative comedy that — strangely — leaves the viewer unsatisfied. It is, in short, an enjoyable date that doesn’t call you back.

Bill Murray is the title character in 'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou'
Bill Murray is the title character in ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’

Bill Murray stars as the title character, a flawed, self-centered Cousteau past his prime out for one last voyage to avenge his partner, eaten alive by a never-before-documented Jaguar Shark. Along for the adventure are Owen Wilson as a commercial pilot from Kentucky who might be Zissou’s son, Cate Blanchett as a pregnant reporter fancied by most of the crew, Willem Dafoe as the German second mate, Anjelica Huston as Zissou’s estranged wife, Jeff Goldblum as a far more successful and better-funded marine adventurer, and an offbeat crew consisting of interns from the University of North Alaska, a Bowie-loving Portuguese sailor, and a “stooge” from the financier bankrolling the adventure. Team Zissou encounter – and overcome – pirates, financial snags, mutiny, and romantic entanglements en route to a successful aquatic documentary and Captain Zissou’s acceptance of leadership and responsibility.

As with all Anderson films, the characters are intriguing, the dialogue is beautiful in its reality, and the performances are noteworthy and nuanced. Dafoe, too often used as a sneering bad guy, steals scenes as Klaus, an angsty Teutonophone craving Zissou’s attention. Blanchett captures all the elements of expectant mother, dutiful reporter, rejected lover, and hopeless romantic, and my opinion that she greatly outshines her romantic interest Wilson is probably colored by my unfair weariness of seeing Owen Wilson in Wes Anderson films. Murray shines, too; he has the market cornered for characters combining world-weary whimsy and egomania.

However, perhaps it is the Murray whimsy, or maybe it’s the intentionally cheesy (but charming) computer-generated fish, but Anderson fails to articulate the gravity of a pirate attack, gunshot wounds, and even death. It is here that The Life Aquatic fails: despite being consistently funny, despite Anderson’s gift for the subtleties of human interaction, and despite the gorgeous climax in a crowded submersible, the “action” that the film ultimately hinges on feels out of place and not at all dangerous. Anderson cinephiles may counter that the underlying message is that real drama lies within human contact and not gun battles, but it’s just a fanciful excuse for an enjoyable film that leaves the viewer saying “Huh”.

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