Sea Sick and Twisted
Hang out at oceanographer bars, andthe topic of discussion invariably turns to Jacques Cousteau and what a Jacques Ass he was. In my garage collecting dust right now are all 27 Jacques Cousteau's The Ocean is Zock Ray Blue print volumes based on the documentary series, and the only reason I've hung onto them all these years (they came out when I was in junior high) was because they sprang from something that ran on a seemingly-endless loop on PBS all those years ago, and if they ran on PBS, it must be for people who are smart 'n' stuff. But it's not like I ever actually cracked open even one volume of Jacques Cousteau's The Ocean is Zock Ray Bluebecause even back then, especially back then, it was—how you say?—BORING! So were the documentaries on which they were based (underwater teeming with never-before-seen sea life makes me sleepy). And yes, les amigos, so was Jacques Cousteau. If only I'd known back then what a Jacques Ass he was, I might have managed to stay awake for at least a full half-hour into one of his docs or thumbed through a few volumes of Jacques Cousteau's The Ocean is Zock Ray Blueto mock Ze Great Man of Ze Sea.
Bill Murray and Wes Anderson are here to correct this pop-culture slight with The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Murray and his gray beard step into what's essentially the Cousteau role, although his character is not French, though he does begin the movie surrounded by 'em. When it comes to playing a pompous, self-absorbed and fulla-himself-yet-wounded-at-the-core soul, there's no one better than Bill Murray, if you don't count William Shatner, and why would you? Starting with Nick the lounge singer and his celebrity reporter on Saturday Night Live and through to Stripes and Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day and Kingpin and Scrooged, Murray has been such a master of the archetype that it probably robbed him of the Oscar for Lost in Translation, as voters just assumed he was playing himself yet again (although it never seems to stop them from piling on the hardware for Jack Nicholson).
Murray got to play off-type, to some degree, in two previous Anderson efforts (The Royal Tenenbaumsand arguably the best of the bunch, Rushmore). But of the three, The Life Aquatic is The Bill Murray Movie. He's in nearly every scene, hell, nearly every frame. And while his character arc isn't necessarily dramatic—save for a too-brief outburst near the end—he does give a performance worth every bit of that $27.50 or whatever it is you rubes are paying for movie tickets these days.
Internationally famous (in a lame, PBS kind of way) oceanographer Steve Zissou leads his team—Team Zissou, in matching seamen outfits and red Calypso caps—on a revenge-induced hunt for the Jaguar shark that may or may not really exist and that Zissou claims killed his best friend and partner during the filming of their previous documentary. Very Moby Dickish, but this time, it's not only personal but will also be filmed like any other Zissou doc in that lame, PBS kind of way, although I do not recall Cousteau's team including a stripper and a guy who strummed a guitar and sang Bowie tunes in Portuguese.
Adding drama to this adventure is Zissou's crumbling marriage to his sugar momma co-producer Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), the sudden arrival of a Kentucky Air co-pilot who may be his son (Owen Wilson, not doing double duty as Anderson's co-writer for a change), and the unwelcomed inclusion of a nosy reporter (Cate Blanchett) and a bond-company accountant (Bud Cort, looking more like Maude than Harold these days. God, we're old.). The actual voyage is no wet dream, either, as pirates, a lack of funds and an even-more-pompous-and-self-absorbed and much, much wealthier oceanographer (Jeff Goldblum) muck things up. Oh, and don't forget that lurking Jaguar shark.
The Life Aquatic and its reported $50 million budget allowed Anderson to further shrink his movie world, which has gotten progressively smaller as you go back in time: a Manhattan apartment that's seen much better days in Tenenbaums; a snooty prep academy in Rushmore; and a small town in his 1996 debut, Bottle Rocket. Here, Anderson's playground is one small craft, Team Zissou's boat the Belafonte, from which the camera seldom ventures. Toss in more assorted oddballs such as Willem Dafoe's uptight German freak show Steve the engineer; add computer-generated, rainbow-colored sea life; and lay it all over bouncy techno from Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh, and you've got one self-contained, goofy goof fest.
Some critics—including those attached to the Weekly's big sistahs LA Weekly and the Village Voice, whose dead-on reviews you'd normally be reading in this space instead of this crap—have complained that other than being interesting to look at, listen to and laugh at, The Life Aquatic says nothing to them other than, "Boy, that Wes Anderson sure was overwhelmed by his budget." There is, they say, too much there there.
I beg to differ. Seemingly lost in my translation of these reviews is Murray's stellar performance—which includes gotta-be-seen-to-be-believed gunslinging action sequences—and the fact that, folks, this ain't Othello. It's a stupid comedy, not the funniest picture of the year (that would be Sideways), but a quirky curio I'd rank alongside Woody Allen's early movies. You know: the funny ones.
And not to get all Robert Hilburn on everyone and insert meaning into something that probably has none, but I'm not so sure taking a hyperclose look at a sad clown and the artificial world he has created around him does not actually—and probably accidentally—say more about our times than just about anything else shaking the Dolby speakers off the walls at the local cineplexes. For who else, to the rest of the world, is more pompous, self-absorbed and fulla themselves than Americans these days? And who better to nail us at this moment than Bill Murray, under Wes Anderson's mock-vintage microscope?
THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU WAS DIRECTED BY WES ANDERSON; PRODUCED BY ANDERSON, SCOTT RUDIN, BARRY MENDEL AND RUDD SIMMONS; WRITTEN BY ANDERSON AND NOAH BAUMBACH; AND STARS BILL MURRAY, OWEN WILSON, ANJELICA HUSTON AND CATE BLANCHETT. NOW PLAYING COUNTYWIDE.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.