Title: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy
Play time: 1h 59min
Director: Wes Anderson
Screenwriters: Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach
Starring: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston
Every critic occasionally faces a situation where he realizes that what he has to say will a) surprise no one, and b) make no meaningful contribution to the discussion. I have spent years shouting from the rooftops that I’ve missed the Wes Anderson train (along with the Pedro Almodovar train, though I somehow managed to catch the Alexander Payne express), and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou not only offered me little reason to change my mind, but didn’t even add very much to my assessment. Anderson’s fans will be pleased as punch; I remain baffled and indifferent.
I see the obsessive, distinctive quirkiness, and I even find it amusing occasionally; it’s not my bag, but I can at least theoretically see the appeal. What I’m not seeing, no matter how hard I look, is the heart that so many claim is there. What I see is something too self-congratulatory to be heartfelt or in anyway significant; a filmmaker too enamored with his own cleverness to make his characters matter to anyone, including himself.
I said this three years ago, and I’m saying it again now. The difference between The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic is that the the success of the latter thankfully does not hinge on us caring about it. Put simply, it is a funny film; if it has ambitions of being more than that, it fails entirely, but it is amusing enough for its smugness to be more akin to incessant barking than to nails on a chalkboard. And when Anderson’s irritating sensibility threatens to overwhelm, Bill Murray manages to make it all okay.
Three years ago I also described Anderson’s work as being “pathetically lazy;” it looks like those words have to be eaten. If nothing else, his style, with its insane attention to detail, florid backgrounds and intricate (if still hideously symmetrical) compositions, must require an inordinate amount of raw effort, and with God as my witness, I will never again impugn that fact. Certainly there are some elaborate and impressive visual set-ups in this self-consciously ridiculous story about a formerly notorious pop oceanographer on his final voyage to bond with his newly discovered son and kill the shark that ate his friend and navigator — the single shot tour of Zissou’s boat, for example, must have taken months to complete.
What all of that handiwork is backing is a script full of amusing wordplay, lots of visual gags, and not a hell of a lot else. Often it’s enough — seeing Murray’s Zissou groove to the music pumped into his helmet makes me glad I saw this movie, as do some of his line deliveries and the mere appearance of the amazing Anjelica Huston. But at two hours, it’s too inconsistent and hollow to satisfy.
You see what’s happening here: I’ve given up on finding substance in Anderson and have taken to interpreting his films on the most basic level imaginable. You might say I am nursing a grudge by refusing to give The Life Aquatic a fair shake. But I can’t help it; the movie is so arrogant and self-satisfied that if it had genitals, I would kick them. There is a scene where Zissou and his crew have ventured into “unprotected waters” and are attacked and bound by pirates. Okay, great: conflict! Then, instead of resolving it in a way that was actually clever, Anderson does it in a way that is merely “clever,” and this represents his approach to everything. It is not narrative or character that matters to him but cementing his status as one of Hollywood’s hippest youngsters.
But I have said this all before. Though The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is far from deadly, it failed to change my mind.