Thursday, December 25, 2014

Foundering in 'The Life Aquatic'

"Nobody knows what's going to happen. And then we film it. That's the whole concept."

Steve Zissou (Bill Murray)

Roger Ebert summed things up for me pretty neatly in his review of "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," which premiered 10 years ago today.

"My rational mind informs me that this movie doesn't work," Ebert wrote. "Yet I hear a subversive whisper: Since it does so many other things, does it have to work, too? Can't it just exist? ... Wes Anderson's 'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou' is the damnedest film. I can't recommend it, but I would not for one second discourage you from seeing it."

Anderson directed and produced this parody of famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau disguised as documentary. He achieved greater critical and commercial success with 2001's "The Royal Tenenbaums," but his style may never have been as clearly defined as it was in "The Life Aquatic."

Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) had a bizarre assortment of crew members and general hangers–on aboard.

For example ...

Zissou's ex–wife (Anjelica Huston) and her ex–husband (Jeff Goldblum) were on board — as was a fellow who believed he was Zissou's long–lost son (Owen Wilson). Cate Blanchett played a journalist who was covering the expedition. She also happened to be pregnant.

Another member of the crew crooned David Bowie songs in Portuguese.

And there was a girl who could be seen from time to time on board the ship (which looked like something dreamed up by Jules Verne). She seldom spoke and was noteworthy mostly for being topless in almost all of her screen time. Being topless had nothing to do, really, with the plot. It just seemed to be the way she rolled.

It was that kind of movie.

Seems to me everyone on board had a reason for being there that was unique (or nearly so) to him or her.

Steve Zissou was driven to track down and kill a shark that ate one of Zissou's team members.

Zissou's alleged long–lost son was there, essentially, to remove the alleged part from that description. The crew members were there because, well, it was their job to carry out whatever eccentric and obsessive mission Zissou was on. Willem Dafoe played the most prominent of the crew members.

I'm not really sure why Zissou's ex–wife (and the alleged mother of the alleged long–lost son) was there — and it is really a mystery to me why the ex–wife's other ex–husband was there at all. I'm sure a lot of it was explained when I saw it, but I saw it the day after Christmas 2004 — which was also the day of the great tsunami that killed thousands. In the aftermath of that event, which was unfolding when I was in the theater, movie details escaped me.

Anyway, along the way, Zissou's vessel encountered Filipino pirates and financial woes. And when the crew finally did catch up to the shark, as Ebert observed, "they fall silent and just regard it, because it's kind of beautiful. This could have been a scene from '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' if Captain Nemo had been a pothead."

Like Ebert, I wouldn't discourage anyone from seeing "The Life Aquatic." In hindsight, though, it strikes me as being disjointed and unfocused much of the time — a good idea that had a lot of unrealized potential.