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The Life Aquatic
with Steve Zissou

Fame can be troublesome for young directors. One minute they are crafting their latest project from whatever snippets of funding they can manage to piece together, working within the confines of their own means, and hoping that someone will pluck them from obscurity, freeing them from the shackles of limited resources. I don’t claim to know this feeling firsthand, but having witnessed this transition several times it would seem safe to say that there is a certain degree of transitioning that is required.

Wes Anderson has appeared to be the exception to this rule in the past, but rumors have been circling his latest project, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, implying that he has indeed hit the wall with his signature style, pacing, and quirky sardonic formula. The charges have been that it is time for Wes to abandon the style that has made him the success of late, and move on to newer, uncharted waters. As if there is such a thing.

Anderson’s debut film Bottle Rocket was a quiet ripple that grew into resounding appreciation on behalf of critics and independent film fans. His follow-up, Rushmore, is largely regarded as his strongest effort, and officially launched him into the forefront of young new talent. The Royal Tenenbaums, however, was met with more of a “love it or hate it” response from critics and audiences alike, and now it would appear that Aquatic is even more polarizing. Or so it would seem.

The word has been out there for some time. It’s been whispered and hushed but out there, nonetheless. Early detractors have remained steadfast to the argument that Aquatic is simply more of the same, and that it has grown tired. Fortunately, this simply isn’t the case.

Sure, Anderson is still working in his own stilted self-imposed world, and fans of Tenenbaums, as am I, will likely walk away happy with his latest work. However, unlike Tenenbaums, the subject whom Anderson has wryly chosen to satire this time out is far subtler. So subtle is it, in fact, that it would seem that the joke has eluded many in the process.

Aquatic tells the story of yet another self-centered bastard of a patriarch, this time in the form of a sea-faring documentarian named Steve Zissou (Bill Murray). Zissou commands a ship named The Belafonte, and is no doubt influenced by Jacques Cousteau and his work documenting sea-life. Zissou’s crew consists of a wide range of cultural figures played once again by an eclectic ensemble cast: the German accented Klaus (Willem Dafoe) looks at Zissou as a surrogate father of sorts, Wolodarsky (Noah Taylor) is named after a close friend of Anderson’s, Vikram (Waris Ahluwalia) is rarely seen without his camera, and Pele (Seu Jorge) spends most of his time playing acoustic renditions of Bowie songs in Portuguese.

After unveiling his latest film depicting the death of his lifelong partner Esteban (Seymore Cassell) at the hands of the mysterious “Jaguar-Shark,” Zissou intends to track down the shark and kill it, for the scientific purpose of revenge. To complicate matters, a young Kentucky Airman named Ned Plympton (Owen Wilson) introduces himself to Zissou as his long lost son, probably. Soon Ned is aboard the Belafonte seeking resolution with his probable father, just as Zissou seeks resolve for Esteban’s death. All the while two other additional characters join the voyage. One is a reporter named Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) who is interviewing Zissou for the cover article of her magazine. The other is Bill Ubell (Bud Cort) a “bond company stooge” who’s only job is to protect the interest of the bank funding the whole expedition, i.e. make certain that Zissou doesn’t do anything illegal.

This is a lot of stuff to process, and believe me, it is only the tip of the iceberg. However this is one of the aspects of Anderson’s films that many find so endearing. He crams every beautifully anamorphic Robert Yeoman frame with so much information that it’s almost as if the whole experience is running right off the screen in all directions.

Needless to say, the perpetually stoned Zissou meanders his way here and there in search for the “Jaguar-Shark,” often allowing his bull headed commands to muck up the expedition in the process. One thing is certain from the onset, as documentarians go Zissou is about as hackneyed as they come. Yet he is often referred to in some sort of historic regard, like a celebrity whose flame still burns, albeit a great deal dimmer than it had before.

This is where the subject of satire becomes a bit more apparent. In Zissou, it would appear that Anderson might be reflecting his own self-image. Here is a man whose career has somewhat painted him into a corner creatively, so to speak. His frustrations to remain relevant in the eyes of all of those surrounding him has somehow blurred his vision and skewed his perspective to the point of overlooking the things most important in life.

In the end, Zissou learns to sit back and enjoy “the adventure” in it all, and it would seem that Aquatic is just that in regards to Anderson. In his own way, his projects would be the equivalent to Zissou’s Belafonte, when it comes time to set sail on a new adventure, Anderson gathers a cast and crew that resembles family in many regards. Some new faces, but many old ones as well.

Sure, he may not have knocked out a film that surpasses his previous efforts, but it would appear that Anderson remains true to what he wants to see onscreen. The result is always something uniquely his own, and downright enjoyable throughout.


Mario Anima

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