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The Awkward Movie Challenge: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

December 01, 2009 By: Category: Greatest Hits, The Awkward Movie Challenge


According to Netflix, Mike and Jeffrey agree with each other on movies 84% of the time. In their weekly semi-regular feature, The Awkward Movie Challenge, they search valiantly for that sweet 16% that results in big arguments and big laughs.


life_aquatic-posterIt’s difficult for me to understand why so many people have such animosity for Wes Anderson. Read the comments on any review of The Fantastic Mr. Fox and you’ll find half a dozen variations on the phrase, “He hasn’t done anything worthwhile since The Royal Tenenbaums.” For those of you keeping score at home, the “nothing worthwhile” in this comment refers to two movies (out of a five film career): The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited. I’ll agree, The Darjeeling Limited was a waste of everyone’s time and should promptly be forgotten. But this is only because Anderson ignored the first rule of filmmaking in the official Filmmakers Guide to Making Films: do not let Jason Schwartzman collaborate on your screenplay. Anderson can be forgiven for making this rookie mistake because from what I hear, he ripped up his Filmmakers Guide to Making Films years ago and replaced it with lollipops.

Anderson’s greatest claim to fame may be his introduction of the word “whimsical” to the handbook of movie reviewers’ derogatives. I’m not sure how he came to embody the essence of whimsy, because a surface glance at any of his films reveals a deep undercurrent of sadness. Bottle Rocket ends with one of the main characters getting sent to prison. In Rushmore, no one ends up particularly happy. Hackman dies in The Royal Tenenbaums and Luke Wilson engages in one of the gnarliest suicide attempts I’ve ever seen captured on film. In The Darjeeling Limited, everyone’s an asshole and the movie sucks. The only one that actually fits the characterization of pure whimsy to me is The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and that’s garnering Anderson some of the biggest raves of his career. So go figure.

The Murray does not give a FUCK.

The Murray does not give a FUCK.

And then there’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the movie that kicked the Anderson hatefest into high gear. At the time The Life Aquatic (I’ll stop using the full title now) came out, Anderson was coming off of an Oscar nod for The Royal Tenenbaums screenplay. Sensing a potential cash cow, Hollywood wrote him a $50 million check for his next fun-filled coming-of-age family romp. Anderson rewarded their faith by churning out one of the strangest attempts at a mainstream film that I’ve ever seen.

The Life Aquatic begins, as all good movies begin, at the movies. A crowd has gathered in an Italian opera house to watch the world premiere of The Jaguar Shark, the latest adventure from Jacques Cousteau-esque explorer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and his merry crew of outcasts. During the film, we learn that Zissou’s longtime partner Esteban was eaten by a gigantic beast that Zissou refers to as the jaguar shark. Trouble is, he dropped the camera when the jaguar shark came around, so no one believes that it actually exists. In the post-screening interview, Zissou announces his intentions to find the jaguar shark and kill it to avenge his friend’s murder.

Owen Wilson as Ned Plimpton, a/k/a Kingsley Zissou.

Owen Wilson as Ned Plimpton, a/k/a Kingsley Zissou.

We soon realize that Zissou is, no pun intended, washed up. His films are no longer making any money. His dominance as an oceanographer has been overtaken by Alistair Hennessey (a hilarious Jeff Goldblum), a priggish fancy-boy who was once married to Zissou’s wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston). His wife hates him, his boat is falling apart, and he’s taken to walking through life in a perpetually-stoned state of melancholy. How will Zissou recapture the ol’ spark? Why, with a new adventure, of course!

After the screening, Zissou meets Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), an airline pilot who may or may not be his son. He persuades Plimpton to join his crew, and together, they set off to track down the possibly-mythical jaguar shark.

The rest of the film plays out as a patchwork series of episodes anchored by a couple of nasty run-ins with some pirates (the modern kind, not the peg-leg version). A pregnant reporter joins the crew, attracting the attention of both Ned and Steve. The crew steals equipment from Hennessey’s sea lab. A “bond company stooge” (Bud Cort) is sent to keep an eye on Zissou’s finances. A crew of pirates boards Zissou’s boat and kidnaps the bond company stooge amidst an uncharacteristically bloody gunfight. The crew tracks down the bond company stooge and rescues him in another bizarre action sequence. Finally, (spoiler alert!) the crew manages to track down the jaguar shark and film an ending to their movie, which screens in the same Italian opera house we saw at the beginning of the film. Fin.

Not if I don't see you first, Sonny!

Not if I don't see you first, Sonny!

I realize that I’m in the minority on The Life Aquatic, but I love this film. It is filled with odd little touches that can only be appreciated upon repeat viewings: the slave-driven interns that are always underfoot, the strange day-glo stop-motion sea creatures that pop up all over the place, the everything that Willem Defoe does so well as Klaus Daimler, perpetual third wheel of the Zissou crew. It is filled with as many quotable lines as The Big Lebowski (one of my favorite exchanges: Ned: If you ever touch me again, I will kick your teeth out. Is that understood? Klaus: Not if I don’t see you first, sonny!) Bill Murray is in top-notch late-Bill Murray form as the self-obsessed (and likely insane) Steve Zissou, and strong performances abound from the supporting cast.

There are two common complaints I’ve heard about The Life Aquatic: 1. it never coalesces into a story and 2. it is just too goshdarned quirky. Regarding point 2, Anderson does, without a doubt, revel in his characters’ oddnesses. Some might call them quirky. I call them interesting. Quirkiness, to me, is oddness for oddness’s sake. The characters in Napoleon Dynamite are quirky. The characters in The Life Aquatic are comically complex. Whatever you may think of Anderson’s dialogue, his characters always remain true to who they are. On top of that, the quirkiness argument ignores the profound melancholy of the film. It’s astonishing to me that The Life Aquatic was made by a 35-year-old at the height of his career. It feels like the work of a 65-year-old European director looking back upon his career and asking himself, “what does it all mean?” Peel back the comedy of the script, and you have a film about a disrespected, washed-up director, besieged by money troubles, terrified that he will die without leaving behind a legacy.

Quirking it up with Wes Anderson.

Quirking it up with Wes Anderson.

Regarding point 1, I guess one’s feelings about the storyline are dependent upon one’s tolerance for character studies. There is absolutely a beginning, middle, and end to the film. I think the criticism really refers to the fact that very few lessons are learned and no one really grows. In the final shot of the film, for example, Zissou sits on the stairs outside the opera house while his film screens inside the theater, right back where he started at the beginning of the film. When the crowd exits the theater, we expect there to be a triumphant applause, something to let Zissou know it has all been worthwhile. Instead, they simply stream out and surround him as he walks away from the opera house, onto further adventures. There is no neat resolution telling us that everything is going to be okay. The resolution is that no matter how much of a struggle it may be at times and how little respect he might get, Zissou can only be Zissou. Ironically, the film was released to overwhelmingly mediocre reviews (can something be overwhelmingly mediocre?), thus making the film a perfect commentary on itself.

The other point that really bothers a lot of people is the sudden switch to action-adventure mode with the pirate battle. The first time I saw the movie, I had the same problem; it seems very out of place in such a low-key character-driven film. I don’t really know how to address this criticism; it still feels somewhat jarring and I can’t say for sure whether it’s necessary. There’s something about the completely fantastical nature of these sequences that works for me, however, and they provide the fodder for a lot of funny moments. The whole film, in fact, feels as though Anderson handed the directing reins over to Max Fischer from Rushmore–this sequence is just the big-screen version of Fischer’s Vietnam play, complete with giant explosions and over-the-top set pieces. I imagine Anderson really was Max Fischer, finally being given the keys to make exactly the type of movie he always dreamed of making.

The horror, the horror!

The horror, the horror!

I could go on and on about the multiple pleasures in The Life Aquatic, but I’m even starting to bore myself with my analysis. To me, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. I haven’t even touched on the fantastic Seu Jorge and Mark Mothersbaugh songs, the gorgeous set design, the unusual use of color, the topless assistant, or the awesome red hats. If you haven’t seen it since it came out, I strongly suggest another look. I have high hopes that some day, after the Wes Anderson lash/backlash/relashing cycles have all played themselves out, audiences will recognize this as a hidden gem and give it the attention it deserves. On the Awkward Scale of Pizzas, I give The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou … 5 1/2 pizzas!


Now, Mr. Segretto … I know you were indifferent to this when you first saw it … did a second viewing change your mind? Or do you hate it even more now? Inquiring minds want to know!

Next: Mike makes Jeffrey cry like a little girl with his lacerating wit and boundless capacity for intimidation!

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