December 17, 2004,
As the main character in Wes Anderson’s new film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Bill Murray is a sort of over-the-hill Jacques Cousteau, whose career decline mirrors his faltering familial relations. At one point he apologizes to his wife, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), saying, “Sorry. I haven’t been at my best the past decade.” It’s a line Murray delivers with the tender, near-despair insouciance we have come to expect of the aging comedian. Sadly, Murray, after a career performance in last year’s Lost in Translation, has few good lines here. Even fans of Anderson are likely to conclude that the director-writer is far from his best in this much anticipated film.
Anderson followed up his highly entertaining debut film Bottle Rocket (1996), which marked the start of Owen Wilson’s career, with the critically acclaimed films Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Tenenbaums was a real delight, by turns bluntly satirical about family life and warmly sympathetic to the bizarre familial habits of avoidance, petty machinations of revenge, and longing for understanding and affection. Disaffected from everyone except his faithful butler, the neglectful and elderly Royal (Gene Hackman) attempts to recover what he takes to be his rightful place among his family. Tenenbaums had what Life Aquatic lacks, a compelling family setting and a well-written lead character. There’s nothing in Aquatic to rival Tenenbaums’s dramatic and comic tensions between husband and wife or father and children. Nothing comes close to approaching the zany humor of Hackman taking his grandkids on a romper-room tour of New York City.
Life Aquatic continues the picture-book style and mood of Tenenbaums. Here, too, the characters have a cartoon quality, created largely by the flattening of surface composition, the use of bright colors, especially fluorescent yellows and reds, and the odd framing of characters in scenes, which makes them appear as if they might pop right out of their two-dimensional surface and into your lap. Scenes are explicitly and self-consciously staged so that characters can make direct visual contact with viewers who are invited to share in the knowledge that the characters are simply putting on for the camera. At times, this works rather well, especially in the scenes featuring Jeff Goldblum as Alistair Hennessey, dressed in a flamboyant white suit with a pink scarf. Hennessey is Eleanor’s first husband and Zissou’s chief nemesis in undersea exploration.
Beyond his peculiar habits of stylization, Anderson specializes in stories of familial loss and oddball conflict. Even in the midst of apparently hopeless lives, broken promises, and years of neglect, Anderson’s characters exhibit a tender longing for reunion. His adult characters are not so much the sort of perpetual adolescents of which Hollywood is so fond, as they are inveterate children who retain a kind of innocence and wonder. The best thing about Anderson’s new film, in keeping with the spirit of youthful wonder, is the way he has populated the undersea world with a host of otherworldly animated sea creatures.
Aquatic begins at an Italian film festival, where Zissou is screening and answering questions about his new film. The undersea documentary ends abruptly and tragically when Zissou’s long-time partner is attacked and killed by a rare “jaguar shark.” In a perversely funny scene in the documentary within the film, Zissou returns to the surface screaming that his partner was just eaten. When his befuddled assistant asks, “bitten?,” Zissou says more emphatically, “No, eaten!”
At the film festival, Zissou unveils plans for a sequel that will involve returning to the sea, finding the shark, and killing it. When he’s asked what the purpose is, he deadpans, “revenge.” But Zissou has trouble securing funds for the voyage; when he eventually does, financial support comes with the proviso that must not kill the shark. He agrees, “I will fight it but not kill it.”
The best that can be said about Life Aquatic is that it is disappointing, not in the vague sense that most Hollywood films fail to live up to minimal audience expectations but in the precise sense that it falls far short of the promise of Anderson’s previous work.
Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.