‘We’ve never made great husbands, have we? Of course, I have a good excuse. I’m part gay’
When it comes to Wes Anderson, you always know what you’re going to get. But that’s the reason why you’ve chosen Anderson… you’re there for the quirky coolness, the offbeat characters and the beautiful (often symmetrical) visuals. But of all Anderson’s films, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is the strangest watch. Upon its release (2004), it was panned by critics, who despised the absence of dramatic momentum and mourned its lack of laughs. Harsh words indeed, but no doubt critics’ expectation was heightened by the fact that with it, Anderson had secured his largest budget (only to go over it during production). When the bar’s been set so high, disappointment is inevitable. Steve Zissou is also a film that garners pleasure after multiple viewings; its subtle visual humour is easily missed first-time.
Bill Murray, a Wes Anderson regular, is the star of the show. As eccentric oceanographer Steve Zissou, he seeks to exact revenge on the shark that ate his beloved colleague Esteban during an underwater filming trip. So far, so Anderson. The twist is that Zissou hasn’t had a hit in twenty years. The character is based on the multi-talented Cousteau, a French naval officer whose CV also includes stints as an explorer, conservationist, filmmaker, scientist, photographer, author and researcher. Of course, Murray can’t carry out revenge alone, a whole cast of supporting characters are along for the ride. Many are familiar faces: Anjelica Huston, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon… Together they are Zissou’s crew (although not literally), a rag-tag, red-beanie outfitted family that shares an easy familiarity and a penchant for the peculiar. Which is lucky because Steve Zissou is nothing if not peculiar.
On the surface, the film is about revenge filtered through the burgeoning relationship between Zissou and Ned Plimpton (played by Owen Wilson). The latter believes that the former is his father, a belief that Zissou comes to share. The family aspect is comparable to The Royal Tenebaums, but it’s a less effective rehash that no doubt contributed to the negative critical reviews. Of course, this is Anderson and the film – much like the Belafonte, Zissou’s beloved boat – has lots of levels that run into each other, blend together with little rhyme or reason. The boat itself functions as an additional character – Zissou takes the audience on a room-by-room tour, and it’s delightfully charming, an unfiltered observation into Anderson’s brain.
Of all the bit-part players, Goldblum is the most interesting. As Alistair Hennessey, he’s Zissou’s sworn nemesis. Suave and sophisticated with an air of achievement, he’s everything that Zissou is not. Incidentally, he’s also sleeping with Zissou’s wife Eleanor (played by the magnificent Huston), the moral compass and the brains behind his productions. Hennessey regards Zissou with undisguised contempt. Goldblum is able to be so scathing because Bill is so deadpan. His passivity and dumb insolence perfectly undercuts Goldblum’s projected sophistication, although the latter will come to rely on his enemy before the film’s conclusion.
Critics who lamented the lack of comedy would be advised to review the Ping Island rescue effort; delightful in its inefficiency and executed in colourful wetsuits (the highest regard for stealth, I assure you!) it’s Anderson at his most eccentric. Zissou, leading the mission to recover the money that was stolen from his crew by pirates, also takes the opportunity to rescue Hennessey, who’s being held captive on the same island. In what must be the most understated yet spot-on poker fold in cinema history, Hennessey reluctantly acknowledges the debt he now owes Zissou.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou might get lost in the sea of its own charm, but it’s a fun and fairly light-hearted dose of Wes Anderson genius. Yes, sometimes it might be a bit too self-aware for its own good, but that’s all part of the fun, right?
Bonus: in this video, Wes Anderson, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, and Willem Dafoe reminisce about the challenging conditions under which they made The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.