Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Dec 20, 2004 1:31 pm 
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Roaming the seas Wes Anderson style

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is about an insecure, not quite grown up Jacques Cousteau clone whose undersea adventure series has tanked for the last decade. His wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), who was the “brains,” some say, of the enterprise, and whose rich parents were its backers, is about to leave him. An illegitimate son who is called Ned Lipton (Owen Wilson, for the first time not the coauthor of a Wes Anderson screenplay) has just shocked Zissou by appearing, and a pregnant British journalist has come on board to do a cover story on him, but since she’s “honest,” it’ll be no puff piece. His big rival, Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) is much richer and more successful. Zissou has declared before an Italian audience his newest project: to track down and kill a rare breed of shark which was responsible for the death of his partner. Thus begins this rambling, entertaining, quite original movie which above all is a vehicle for the ripening talents of the mature Bill Murray -- for which Lost in Translation now seems but a timid warm-up.

Sofia Coppola’s second film showed Murray’s ironic wistfulness; The Life Aquatic showcases a far wider spectrum of expressions and emotions. Steve Zissou is the captain of his antiquated studio-like ship, and he knows how to command. But he also knows he's become a failure and he's often open about his insecurity. Anderson merges absurdity with sympathy throughout his portrait of Zissou.

There are those who think Anderson has gone further out into the kind of quirky self-indulgence and preciosity he occasionally displayed in his previous film, The Royal Tennenbaums -- that his movies have become sequences of fade-out comic vignettes, static tableaux to set off one-liners. In fact The LIfe Aquatic isn't static at all. It crackles and pops with a spiky sense of direction. Steve's goal is to track the spotted leopard shark that ate his partner and best friend, and that goal really does drive the meandering action. (The movie's populated with digitalized underwater creatures that, weird though fish can normally be, manage to look even more absurd. The spotted shark is only the largest of them.) Along the way he must deal not just with self doubt but with pirates, financial and personal loss -- one mishap after another. His reunion with his son ends in tragedy. But he achieves his own redemption, even winning the friendship of his nemesis (Goldblum). The Life Aquatic has the satisfying arc of classic comedy, skirting failure and disaster and ending in happiness and union. The risk Anderson runs isn't of stasis but of declining into the kind of silly incidents you find in TV sitcoms. But that's a risk he manages to sail safely past.

And he has assembled a great cast -- Cate Blanchett (more winning and human than usual here in a performance that's not a shtick or a feat of mimicry but a portrait of a nice lady); Willem Dafoe as a testy Germanic acolyte; Goldblum, in his posh mode as in Igby Goes Down; a relaxed, self-parodying Michael Gambon; the regal Anjelica; and above all Owen Wilson, who acts as Zissou's (and Murray's) chief foil. The movie is also enlivened by fun settings like the Italian theater in the opening sequence, the boat, and the ruined hotel on the little island later on.

Essential is the wistful relationship with "Ned," Owen Wilson, whom Steve willingly appropriates yet is constantly uneasy about. He's glad to be needed, but terrified at the responsibility of having a son. Wilson is from Kentucky here, quietly charming, polite, unflappable. His simplicity and sense of security are an essential balance for Zissou's neurotic complexity.

The characters are constructed out of precise and witty moments. There's a charming scene where Ned comes upon the journalist, Jane Winslett-Richardson (Blanchett), and finds her listening to a tape of Bach keyboard music while reading aloud from the English translation of Swan's Way -- with the other volumes of Proust stacked on a chair, and she explains she's reading them for the baby in her tummy. When Ms. Winslett-Richardson boards the boat and is assigned to her cabin Steve says "Not this one, Klaus" (to Dafoe's character) just like in Jules et Jim when Oscar Werner introduces Henri Serre to Jeanne Moreau, and when Ned gets involved with Jane, Steve says "I said 'not this one'" and Ned says "I thought you said 'Not this one, Klaus'."

These are the kind of little touches that give the movie its special charm, but they also lead us toward a sense of understanding, even enlightenment. Anderson's strength in this movie as in The Royal Tennenbaums is that he conceives his whole cast as an eccentric family throughout -- the family of a man who doesn't want to be a father because he didn't like his, but who just as clearly is dying to become a mensch in his own eyes, and can't accomplish that alone.

It was rather odd to see this movie in the overblown cineplex where it was having one of its two opening "exclusive engagements." Somehow the scenes and dialogue didn't seem like what you'd expect in a cineplex at all. Still, The LIfe Aquatic is shot in a wide aspect ratio, and it looked great projected in the big auditorium, the same kind of room where House of Flying Daggers or Ocean's Twelve might appear. The mostly young audience was plainly delighted.

What makes this one of the best American movies of the year is that it's very much an auteur piece but it's warmly inclusive in its use of movie traditions. With luck its comedy may reach across barriers of class and education: it could "go wide" in more ways than one.
FOOTNOTE, MAY 2014: Despite the enthusiasm expressed above, The Life Aquatic turned out to be Wes Anderson' least successful film with the critics. In a 2007 article about him by David Amsden in New York Magazine Wes says “I think it’s generally thought of as the least loved of all my movies.” Life Aquatic has a Metacritic rating of 62. Overall his Metacritic average is unusually high, 76 (his admirer Martin Scorsese's is 72) and it has become astronomical recently. Here's how each of his oeuvre ranks (including his stop-motion animation film Fantastic Mr. Fox) according to Metacritic:
88 The Grand Budapest Hotel Mar 7, 2014
84 Moonrise Kingdom May 25, 2012
83 Fantastic Mr. Fox Nov 13, 2009
67 The Darjeeling Limited Sep 29, 2007
62 The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
75 The Royal Tenenbaums
86 Rushmore Dec 11, 1998
65 Bottle Rocket Feb 21, 1996

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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