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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
2004 - R - 118 Mins.
Director: Wes Anderson
Producer: Wes Anderson, Barry Mendel and Scott Rudin
Written By: Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach
Starring: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, Anjelica Huston, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe
Review by: John Ulmer
Official Site: lifeaquatic.com
   

Tears of a clown.
In recent times, Bill Murray’s movies have been misleadingly advertised. Fearing box office failure, the marketing team behind “Lost in Translation” crafted ads presenting it as a goofy romantic comedy. It was in fact a much deeper and poignant art house experience, and even after the Oscars ceremony there were still people renting the film expecting a comedy. It was a “critical success and a public disaster,” as one reviewer aptly described it. After all, no one pays to go see a serious Bill Murray movie, right?

Similarly, Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” seems to have misled many filmgoers into perceiving it is a silly slapstick comedy.

It is not.

Like Anderson’s earlier work (and in fact more so than anything else he has made), “The Life Aquatic” is a rather serious film with a bit of dry humor here and there to lighten the mood. Those expecting "Ghostbusters III" or another "Stripes" will be very disappointed.

For my money this is Anderson’s most mature directorial effort to date. It deals with a lot of angst and could arguably be called a mid-life-crisis movie (although certainly less so than “The Royal Tenenbaums”). It deals with a man's trials and tribulations -– involving death, love, hatred, regret, fatherhood, envy, and so on and so forth. There is not a more ideal actor out there to play this role than Bill Murray. In an interview, he once said that he has a lot of trouble and anger in his personal life; it translates well to the screen.

In “The Life Aquatic” Murray plays the titular Steve Zissou (pronounced "Ziz-so"), world famous oceanographer and failing documentary film maker (whose last hit, we are told, was nine years ago). While on a routine diving mission, Steve’s lifelong friend is eaten alive by an unidentified “Jaguar Shark.” Steve captures the events on camera and inserts them in his next film, but the critical reaction is dire. Steve is accused of having lost his touch, and is given one last chance to present his investors a hit, or he will never work again.

However the last things on Steve’s mind are financial issues – instead he swears revenge on the Jaguar Shark (in the name of science, of course) and embarks on an adventure to slaughter the fish that killed his best friend.

Steve’s estranged wife (Anjelica Huston) joins him on his trip, as well as a mysterious man who may or may not be Steve’s son (Owen Wilson with a Kentucky accent), and a very German Willem Dafoe (who is responsible for most of the film’s laughs). Also along for Zissou’s final outing is a blunt reporter (Cate Blanchett) seeking the dirt on Zissou, who finds herself falling in love with his ostensible son.

This movie is very ambiguous and open-ended. It leaves a lot open for discussion at the end -- something I believe Wes Anderson is particularly good at. Some of his past films such as “Rushmore” have been impressive, but it seems if Anderson has any flaws it is his unabashed sentimentality and (as some critics have accused him of) superficiality.

Ironically “The Life Aquatic” is simultaneously Anderson’s most superficial and honest film. On its surface, it is Anderson’s first true Hollywood movie and even features special effects. But in terms of narrative it is by far his most realistic and touching movie (or at least I thought so). Watching “Rushmore” I laughed a lot and felt attached to the characters, but the ending seemed tacked-on and didn't ring true. “The Life Aquatic”was entertaining and also managed to feel free of narrative manipulation – and that is probably why people either love or hate it, judging from critical response.

Overall, while not a flawless film, it is a very mature work, and a nice addition to Anderson’s oeuvre. I believe its mixed reaction from the critics and public is due to the fact that it was heavily misunderstood on release (as some of the great classic films were in their time) and is, as I mentioned above, much more of an honest drama than some the audience probably expected it to be walking into the theater based on the promotional campaign and trailer.

You can now experience the film unencumbered with erroneous preconceptions, and thanks to an excellent Two-Disc Criterion Collection DVD, there are ample special features available that may add to your appreciation of this excellent film.
 
Movie Guru Rating
An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant.
  4.5 out of 5 stars

 
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