Written by: Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston
My Advice: Skip it.
Steve Zissou (Murray) is in more than a rut…he’s in the Marianas Trench, practically. His underwater documentaries haven’t been well received in years, his wife (Huston) is this close to walking out on him, his crew is suffering from terrifically low morale, a reporter (Blanchett) has shown up to write an article that could either break or break him, and some guy (Wilson) has shown up who may or may not be his son. And worst of all, his long-time compadre (Seymour Cassel) was eaten by a very rare jaguar shark. There’s only one thing to do: rally the troops and go seek revenge on said shark.
Well, this is a painful review to write. After overcoming the profoundly unfunny Bottle Rocket to deliver two sublime pieces of film, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson steers his star-studded fourth feature right back into unfunny hell. The thing about an Anderson film, and what makes it effective, is that it takes place in a world that’s just slightly more askew than our own. Things are odd, but not so odd that it feels unrealistic. The characters in this world are also rather odd, but not so much so that you can’t recognize them as people you could know in your real life. Because this is played just a little bit off kilter, when the weird shit happens (a rich businessman decides to build a giant aquarium or a guest arrives late at a wedding party high out of his mind and driving a car into the building), you take it in stride.
[ad#longpost]Don’t misconstrue: the reason Life Aquatic falls spectacularly flat is not because it fails to live up to any expectation, it’s because it tries to act as though it’s operating under those aforementioned slightly askew parameters–but it’s not. Instead of a world most folks can understand, we’re in a fantasyland in disrepair, headed up by an obvious Cousteau analog. It’s where everybody–including the interns–has a chance to carry a glock, where a crew of misfits can have grand adventures finding rare animals, and where you can actually have somebody like Jeff Goldblum as a nemesis. Because of this, the really odd occurrences are just that…odd. They have no resonance.
And the strange non sequiturs that characters throw out just kind of twitch vaguely in the air. At a crucial point in the story, Blanchett’s pregnant character makes a statement about her baby’s age at a point in the future, to which Murray responds…but…where the hell did it come from? The same lines traded between Max Fischer and Herman Blume, or Royal and Chas Tenenbaum, might have worked. But here, what little depth you’ve gone into the story…pop…you’re out again. Also not helping matters is the sea life animation by Henry Selick. Don’t get me wrong, the creatures look cool and all, but they also look like they’re from a different movie. If we had a decent real world setup to begin with, maybe the fanciful would have worked…but seeing Selick’s animation in this film just took me right out of the movie. Again.
It doesn’t help matters that instead of using this diverse cast of great actors to bring to life a legion of memorable characters, nothing is fleshed out at all. Huston is The Bitchy Wife. Noah Taylor‘s role could have been played by anyone. Jeff Goldblum is Jeff Goldblum. Even characters that should feel real simply from the amount of time we spend with them, like Blanchett and Wilson, don’t feel genuine in the least. Bill Murray just seems tired and bored. And granted, his character spends a lot of time tired and bored, but surely there’s got to be something else going on. When Bud Cort shows up for a small role and brings more energy than most of your main cast, you have issues. About the only two memorable characters are the pouty Klaus (Dafoe in a wonderful departure for him, sadly underutilized) and Seu Jorge as PelÃ©, primarily because Jorge provides the only really memorable thing about the whole film: he sings Bowie songs in Portuguese, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar.
The film is a mess. It can’t decide what it wants to be and tries to just throw a bunch of characters against the wall and make them stick. Character moments don’t work and sometimes just are wrong–Goldblum smacking a dog with a rolled up paper for no apparent reason springs immediately to mind. The plot is jumpy and contrived and supposed revelations do little more than spark a “Eh” response. Basically, it has very little to offer. I can’t even tell Murray completists to go see it, at least not with a clear conscience. Grab any of his other films, watch them again instead, and call it good.