11 March 2011

Movies: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0362270/

A whimsical comedy drama adventure film. From Wes Anderson, the man behind Rushmore and The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Steve Zissou makes ocean exploration documentaries much in the same style as the The Undersea World of Jaques Cousteau.  Zissou seems slightly inept and doesn't seem to know much about marine biology and appears to make stuff up as he goes along.  His crew are a hodgepodge collection of misfits from various walks of life. Only his wife has any training in marine biology and keeps him in line. Well, the posse of interns from the University of Northern Alaska might have some as well, but Zissou uses them more as unpaid servants than students during their semester at sea with him.
His most recent film leaves the audience with a cliffhanger of sorts - a mysterious new type of shark, a Jaguar Shark, that ate Zissou's lifelong friend/brother/father-in-spirit Esteban. Zissou dropped the underwater camera during the attack, thus he had no footage to prove its existence. When Zissou premiers the movie he is painfully aware that the bulk of the audience thinks he is a joke. He swears for his next film he will hunt down that Jaguar Shark and kill it. When asked what is the scientific purpose about killing a potentially new and endangered species, he replies, "Revenge."
After the film premier Zissou meets his possible illegitimate son, Ned. Ned sought him out a month after Ned's mother died to find out if Zissou is really his father. As they spend a couple days together on Zissou's private island/base of operations Zissou encounters trouble securing funding for the next film. Ned offers his inheritance to back the film - which also gives him more time to get to know his father. Zissou's wife Elanor leaves him in protest, she feels Zissou is taking advantage of Ned and wants nothing to do with it. Elanor moves into the villa of Zissou's nemesis (and Elanor's ex-husband) Hennessey. We follow Zissou and his crew as he prepares for, then embarks, upon this quest for the Jaguar Shark.  Zissou is accompanied this trip by Ned, a pregnant magazine reporter doing a story on Zissou, and the production company bondsman assigned to make sure he stays in budget. 

The film stars Bill Murray as Steve Zissou, Owen Wilson as his son, Cate Blanchett as the magazine reporter, Anjelica Houston as Zissou's wife, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum as Hennessey, Michael Gambon (Dumbledore #2), and filled out with a relatively unknown but effective supporting cast.  A notable highlight is the character "Pele dos Santos", whose primary job seems to be sitting around somewhere in the scenes, either leading in or leading out, singing David Bowie songs in Portuguese while accompanying himself on acoustic guitar.

Some folks might be put off by the look of this movie - because at times, especially underwater scenes, it looks vibrantly cartoonish. Well, not "Finding Nemo" cartoonish, just the style of animation of some of the creatures coupled with neon and pastel colors. It is a stylistic choice to show the undersea world the way Zissou sees it, whether or not it actually reflects reality. Many of the creatures pointed out by Zissou aren't real sea creatures anyhow, so that plays into the feel of the film.  There's an amazing cross-section of Zissou's research vessel "Belafonte" scene - where it almost looks like a simplified drawing of a boat but it is an actual set with the crew moving about the ship and in the rooms, complete with two dolphins that accompany the ship on its trips swimming beneath the cross-section, all narrated by Zissou as if he was doing one of his documentaries.


When I think on it, the film is more whimsical than silly in nature.  It has a surreal visual style. People play their roles without 'winking at the camera' to tell us if something is supposed to be funny or not. The whole movie is a wink at the audience, or has "quotes" around it. It is exaggerated in a way, not only the sets and locations but the characters and dialog, but everything is played straight as if it was real in their universe.  The core dramatic parts, the character growth, the relationships, those stay serious and on course through the film. I think that's why this movie works for me. The contrasts of the whimsy against the serious.

Very few things in this film are wasted, almost everything shown has some bearing, large or small, upon the story as a whole. We're shown that the crew are issued sidearms, sidearms get used. We see there are dolphins with cameras strapped to their backs, the dolphins figure into the story. The script girl walks around topless, and, well, she walks around topless.

The background musical score, provided by Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh, has its whimsical moments, especially the underwater accompaniment scores.  The end titles even make an acknowledgment nod to the end title sequence of 1984's "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension" - with the major characters falling in pace behind Zissou as he walks down the dock to the "Belafonte".  Which is probably the second time for Jeff Goldblum to make such a walk. 

I really enjoyed this movie. So much so that I've lost count of how many times I've watched it over the years.  It is probably one of my favorite comedies from the 2000-2010 decade. The movie grows on me a little more each time I see it, and I don't seem to tire of it as long as I give it a few month's rest between viewings. Every once in a while I take a moment to watch it again. There's something soothing in its surreal silliness, how well the cast works together, the dialog, the sets and locations, how everything is just slightly off, yet on, at the same time.  It is a fun tongue-in-cheek film, but still has threads of real drama and real character growth.

I also realize it is one of those like-it-or-hate-it films, as the wife just rolls her eyes anytime I sit down to watch it again. She didn't even finish watching it the first time.  Then again, Buckaroo Banzai wasn't much her cup of tea either.  Come to think of it, the last time I tried to get her to watch Zissou through to the end she got up partway through to go do something else and I finished watching it anyhow. What I didn't tell her was I had just watched it by myself the day before while she was napping. Actually, that probably says more about me than her.

I would posit that if you are a fan of Buckaroo Banzai you just might find this film to your liking.

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