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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou


Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, Noah Taylor, Bud Cort, Seu Jorge, Robyn Cohen, Waris Ahluwalia, Niels Koizumi, Pawel Wdowczak, Matthew Gray Gubel and Seymour Cassel.

Screenplay by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach.

Directed by Wes Anderson.

Distributed by Buena Vista Pictures. 118 minutes. Rated R.

Watching The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is sort of like being forced to sit through a two-hour long inside joke without ever being let in on the gag.

It’s a shame, because I know director Wes Anderson is considered to be one of the most imaginative filmmakers around. (I never quite bought into that, though I did like Rushmore pretty much.) This movie has an incredible cast and pretty much each one of them does a tremendous job. The film looks terrific (although the animated fish were rather unrealistic looking, but I think that was the intention.) Money was obviously spent here. There were some very funny moments in the film, one or two genuine shocks, and it had a whimsical quality that could be charming in small doses.

So, The Life Aquatic is far from being the worst film in 2004.

I will say, however, that it is the most pointless movie I’ve seen all year. And it’s December, so the year is essentially over, nobody’s going to pass it.

Has the world really been waiting for a parody of Jacques Cousteau almost eight years after the French explorer’s death? Apparently, Anderson thinks so. On one level, he does a very good job of it too, capturing the look and the feel and the camera angles of European diving movies.

I just have to wonder, why bother?

Bill Murray plays Steve Zissou, a past-his-prime ocean explorer and documentarian who is trying to hold on to the little bit of fame he has left. He still has a following in Europe, where they watch the debut of his latest clumsily directed nature documentary. In this film, his oldest friend is eaten by a rare “jaguar shark.” Zissou decides to hunt and kill the shark as the sequel.

Murray is very good in the role of Zissou, even though I didn’t buy half of the actions his character had to carry out. Cate Blanchett continues her extraordinary ability to disappear so completely into a role that you do not recognize that it was her until the closing credits. Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon and Bud Cort are all given not much to do, but they do the little they have been given with panache. In fact, I like everyone in the cast except for one. This film continues my total inability to get Owen Wilson at all. He’s not funny and not a good actor. Why does he get so many jobs?

However, even he is not the problem with this film. The problem is the screenplay. It is too determined to be quirky, too driven to be precious, trying so hard to shock us that it completely abandons little storytelling techniques like character and cohesive storyline.

Several cast members exist for no other reason than to be eccentric. The one female member of Zissou’s crew (Robyn Cohen) is topless through the first third of the movie for no apparent reason. (Not that I’m complaining…) A mate played by Seu Jorge is only on hand to sit with an acoustic guitar and sing David Bowie songs in Portuguese. We are never told why he sings in Portuguese. Or why David Bowie, for that matter? He speaks English and as far as I can tell no one else in the crew speaks Portuguese. Anderson never bothers to explain, preferring to seem edgy by letting it just lay out there. Even the crew’s mascot, a dog that they rescue from pirates, has only three legs, undoubtedly just because the director thought it would be off-beat to have a three-legged dog. At least he didn’t name the poor pooch Lucky.

Major plot developments are thrown at the wall for no other reason than to see if they will stick. Important storylines – a pirate attack, a helicopter crash, a shootout in an abandoned tropical resort – feel arbitrary and tacked on. The fact that these plot points make no sense in the story at large and do not push it into any particular direction makes the whole thing seem self-indulgent and smug.

So, I guess the question is, should you parody something obscure just because you can? I suppose it’s Anderson’s right to do so. However, I don’t see why I should have to sit through it. (12/04)

Ken Sharp

Copyright ©2004 All rights reserved. Posted: January 4, 2005.

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