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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

As I’ve been quite happy to admit on many occasions, I’m a movie nerd. I’m even the worst kind of movie nerd, I’m an aging movie nerd who’s just at the cusp, where I remember what movies used to be like! I own Yellowbeard and Blazing Saddles on DVD and I don’t care who knows it. While I’m not old enough to have been raised on the old black and white shenanigans of the likes of The 3 Stooges and The Marx Brothers, I am old enough to understand what those artists did for movie comedy and recognize the influence of their work (and the likes of Jerry Lewis) in modern comedies. In case you’re wondering, I’m *only* in my 30’s, but I’ve been a movie fan all my life, so it’s pretty rare that something catches me off guard. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou however, did just that: It caught me completely by surprise. >> more

The good lady Barberella (my better half) informed me a couple of weeks ago that she’d managed to get us a couple of preview tickets to ‘some movie’ that was ‘something about the sea’. After establishing that this was most definitely NOT some re-release of Titanic I promptly put the whole affair out of my mind. It’s not normally the case that I’ll find myself sitting in a cinema without having done some kind of active investigation about a film: Who is in it? Who’s the director? But before I knew it there I was.. sitting in the cinema without a clue as to what this movie was… But then the nice lady from Bona Vista gave us a little welcome, gave away a few t-shirts and soundtracks, in the process revealing that the movie starred Bill Murray [Caddyshack, Ghostbusters], Owen Wilson [Zoolander] and Cate Blanchett [Bandits, LOTR]. Thus my interest was peeked! She also mentioned the name of the writer/director: Wes Anderson…  “Where do i know that name from?” I thought. But before I could put my finger on it the lights had dimmed and my concentration moved to the screen.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou tells the story of oceanographer Steve Zissou [Murray] who plans to hunt down and kill the mysterious sea creature responsible for the death of his long time friend. Team Zissou, which is in dire financial troubles, is comprised of the loyal crew of The Belafonte (which includes Willem Dafoe and Noah Taylor) and Zissou’s estranged wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) and a gaggle of nameless interns.

Murray is surrounded by an extraordinary cast in this film, however he manages to hold your focus with an extremely solid performance as the emotionally damaged, aging oceanographer, and yet at the same time the Zissou character is brilliantly amusing. I found myself questioning the legitimacy of everything that the team gets up to, from their documentary making practices to their farcical knowledge of marine life, nothing seems to feel balanced or complete. Zissou seems to become more untangled as the film progresses. In the beginning we learn that his best friend has recently been kill by that mysterious creature, then that he may well be the father of a fully grown man… It’s not until things hit rock bottom that Zissou finds true character and strength.

While his role is something of a bit part, the other extremely notable performance in this film is that of Willem Dafoe as Klaus Daimler, a long serving, and neglected, member of Team Zissou. Better known for performances as hard core military officers or the kind of evil villain who’d dare to take on Spider-man, Dafoe’s role in Aquatic is a sharp contrast to these. Having now seen Defoe’s portrayal of Daimler I’ve a new found respect for the man’s range and acting ability.

Fans of the music of David Bowie are also in for a treat as the movie’s unconventional soundtrack is revealed. Singer Seu Jorge plays the part of Pelé dos Santos, a member of the crew of The Belafonte. Santos spends his time sitting around the boat strumming away at his acoustic guitar and singing random Bowie songs. The twist is that they’ve all been translated into Portuguese. The songs sound fantastic, however the familiarity of the melody against the unfamiliar sounding lyric add to an increasing sense of detachment from the real world that permeates the whole movie.

For those of us who grew up watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau there’s bound to be a sense of familiarity to The Life Aquatic as it’s quite clear from the film’s opening that there is some form of homage being paid to the french sea explorer and the adventures that he bought into people’s homes in the 1970’s through his ground (water?) breaking documentaries  – There’s even a subtle reference in the naming of the Team Zissou boat, The Belafonte: Zissou’s boat is named after the Calypso singer Harry Belafonte – Cousteau’s boat was named The Calypso. While I’m sure that the similarities between Zissou and Cousteau end there, there’s no denying where the idea for the Zissou character spawned from in the mind of the film’s writer and director… Wes Anderson.

It wasn’t until we were driving home from the theater, while the good lady Barberella and I were discussing the film and I uttered the line: “The only movie that I can think of that has a similar style of humor in it is The Royal Tenenbaums” that it all fell into place… Wes Anderson! THAT Wes Anderson! That explains it. It explains why this movie is so difficult to explain! Aquatic has that same other worldly silliness that is threaded through Tenenbaums. And if you’ve ever tried to explain The Royal Tenenbaums to anyone, you’ll understand just how hard it is to explain a Wes Anderson movie to someone who hasn’t already seen it!

It’s about the characters, it’s about how they interact with each other and the world around them. They don’t seem to ‘fit’ in the real world and so Wes Anderson’s films tend to have a dream like quality to them. It’s the unique style that Wes’ characters and movies display that will set them apart in your mind and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is not an exception. Now, weather that means that you’ll simply hate them or that they will take pride of place in your video collection.. sorry.. DVD collection (there I go, showing my age again!) remains to be seen. If you’ve not seen a Wes Anderson film (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) then it would be remiss of you not to open yourself up to the man’s work. Love or hate them, at least you’ll know. If you have however seen something from his back catalogue and you’ve enjoyed them, I have no doubt that you’ll simply love this latest offering.

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1 Comment

    Hey Mike
    Welcome back,

    ‘glad you found my comment on the movie usful.

    ~ elroy