The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
Writer-director Wes Anderson is an absurdist. His films (four so far: Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and now The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) exist in an imaginary bubble that might as well be popping out of his head, cartoon-style.
It takes a bit of getting used to, this Anderson-world. When I first saw Rushmore, reviewing it for Time Out, I honestly didn't know what to make of it, and said so. Now I've seen it three times, and I'd rate it one of the cinematic treasures of the decade. And The Royal Tenenbaums right along side it. What it took me a second look to realise, was that underneath the rich, affected, rather literary idiosyncrasies Anderson cultivates as a kind of comic camouflage, these are deeply emotional stories about solitude and connection, men and women, fathers and sons.
With his deadpan ironic detachment concealing a heartworn romanticism, Bill Murray would seem to be Anderson's ideal actor. He was Herman Blume in Rushmore, Raleigh St Clair in Tenenbaums. Now he's very much the focal point as Steve Zissou, a filmmaker-icthyologist in the Jacques Cousteau mould. Except that Cousteau knew a thing or two about marine biology and wasn't a bad documentarist either, while Zissou is a vainglorious adventurer whose ex-wife (Anjelica Huston) was the brains behind his success. Now she's gone his glory days are behind him. (You would think Anderson, who's 35 and one of the hottest directors in America, would be too young for such anxieties, but like Max Fischer in Rushmore, he's old before his time.)
It's a midlife crisis movie crossed with a quest plot. Zissou feels old and over-the-hill. Especially when a jaguar shark eats his best friend Esteban (Seymour Cassel). He tracks this hitherto unknown creature with a view to blowing it to smithereens, but during the course of this Ahab-like odyssey he also has occasion to bond with one Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), who may or may not be the son he never had.
The Life Aquatic is Anderson's most expensive film by a long chalk. Backed by Disney to the tune of $60 million or so, it has a big name cast (including Willem Dafoe, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, and Anderson's buddy Owen Wilson), exotic locations, and a marvellous set in the good ship Belafonte, a souped up rust bucket/film studio/laboratory/spa.
In the US, many critics seemed to review the budget rather than movie. Anderson was losing the plot, was the general gist. He was getting too big for his boots. You shouldn't spend this kind of money on something as slight, as esoteric, as the search for a blatantly made-up fish.
Well, I don't think audiences care how much a movie cost, it's not like they're paying more for the ticket. It is true that with its Portuguese renditions of David Bowie hits, its Filipino pirates and its animated marine animals, this movie is a very strange kettle of fish. Often it feels almost as if it's been made up on the spot. Or as if Anderson has been indulging in too much reefer. But even if it hits the doldrums once or twice, this film drifting is more entertaining than most cruise-controlled action movies. In a strange way it did remind me of one recent blockbuster though. Imagine Finding Nemo for adults.