January 24, 2005

Man Overboard!

Print More

After the heralded Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, director/screenwriter Wes Anderson is evidently beginning to feel the pressure. With those two movies, Anderson established himself as a veritable cred barometer for everyone from indie fashionista to dour Times critics. Certain ladies’ journals have even compared him to Orson Welles. Facing that much hyperbole, Anderson has apparently braced himself for the ensuing backlash. The Life Aquatic is about great expectations and their inevitable failure to be realized; it’s a study of how quirkiness and imagination, once valorized as eccentric brilliance, are eventually dismissed as quaint entertainments, trifling B-movies devoid of intelligence or spirit.

Bill Murray is Steve Zissou, a flagrant imitator of Jacques Cousteau and an intrepid adventurer with futuristic technology and a fleet of for-credit-only interns. As an understatement, we might say he seems to be down on his luck: his last movie just bombed; his best friend was eaten by a ferocious “jaguar shark”; he just met his 30-year-old son (Owen Wilson); and he hates life in general and himself in particular. It would be an exercise in futility to even suggest a plot summary. Ostensibly, The Life Aquatic documents Zissou’s quest for the shark, but this concern occupies only about 10 minutes of the film. There are literally dozens of significant characters, each embedded in labyrinths of motivations, flashbacks and schemes.

Not that anything is particularly confusing or difficult. Anderson doesn’t seem interested in the film’s specific narrative; like Tarantino and The Coen Brothers, he enjoys the idea of narrative in general, in highlighting and parodying the cinematic conventions of storytelling. It seems less like an attempt at whimsical nostalgia and more like a purely intellectual satire of action/adventure movies. Helicopters and submarines are deployed in order to show off intentionally cheesy effects, and characters jog around with glocks strapped to their thighs solely because it’s expected of them in this sort of movie.

It’s difficult to reconcile that style with the film’s lengthy examinations of the sort of emotional complexity more reminiscent of Anderson’s other works. Bill Murray is once again the epitome of grizzled nonchalance. “I don’t understand any of it,” he grumbles, “But I can tell it’s bullshit.” With this movie, he’s indisputably one of the subtlest and most deadpan comedians this side of Robert Mitchum. His wry weariness is etched onto every expression, as if too much enthusiasm would be a sign of capitulation. Assistant Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe) concisely sums up Zissou: “You don’t look too good.” In response, Zissou just messes up his receding hair and keeps on staring blankly at walls.

Wilson, Defoe, Angelica Huston (as Zissou’s wife) and Cate Blanchett (as a pregnant journalist) are all more or less incidental, one-note jokes that persevere for the entire length of the film. Their performances are intentionally monotonous and disinterested. They’re completely inscrutable, like something out of Warhol’s horror films, torn between goofy camp and stoned nihilism. The conversations are stilted. The special effects are cheap and distracting.

One plausible gesture would be to dismiss these as serious flaws that damage irreparably the apparent seriousness of the rest of the movie, as permanent disjunctions that stall the movie’s flow. Most critics have embraced this analysis. It’s not that simple though. The Life Aquatic is fundamentally about how it’s possible to enjoy a movie despite (or because of) its rough edges and antiquated “conventions.” Zissou’s films-wthin-the-film are amateur and preposterous, but they’re always exciting and thoughtful. Indeed, they contain those properties precisely because of their faults. If The Life Aquatic is flawed, as most critics will contend, that would only serve to better illustrate its message. If we’re to believe Anderson, dismissal, neglect and melancholy accompany all important artistic and scientific pursuits, including his own.

Archived article by Alex Linhardt
Sun Arts & Entertainment Associate Editor