Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Review - The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Some directors are an acquired taste. I haven’t understood the acclaim which has greeted Wes Anderson’s previous three pictures - Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums - and his latest effort once again leaves me cold.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou stars Bill Murray as the Jacques Cousteau-like character of the title, an oceanographer and documentary filmmaker. During his latest expedition, Team Zissou encountered a ‘Jaguar Shark’ which ate Zissou’s crew member and best friend (Seymour Cassel). Zissou vows that his next adventure is to track down and kill the shark, but the lack of interest in his films is making it harder to find funding. Things are getting worse for Zissou as his wife Eleanor (Angelica Huston) has left him for his smarmy rival Hennessy (Jeff Goldblum) and a pilot called Ned (Owen Wilson) has turned up claiming to be his illegitimate son. But Ned has his late mother’s inheritance burning a hole in his pocket, so Zissou makes him part of the team and they set off on their mission.

Right from the start, The Life Aquatic is clearly a Wes Anderson picture. The brightly coloured production design, quirky characters, distinctive costumes and strange offbeat humour is all present and correct. But it all feels so familiar and so forced by this stage. Anderson has barely developed at all from Tenenbaums and much of this film is a chore to sit through.

The main problem with The Life Aquatic is Anderson’s over-stylised direction which squeezes the life out of all the characters and situations. Everything here is so crafted, so detailed and precise that the film never seems spontaneous or alive. Visually, it’s a treat, with Robert Yeoman’s lush cinematography making every scene interesting to look at. Anderson also pulls of some terrific shots here and there, not least the magnificent view of the entire ship which the camera glides around to give us a guided tour of the Belafonte’s inner workings. The film is incredibly detailed, and there are lovely little touches such as the Zissou brand trainers or the blue outfits and red hats which constitute the team’s uniform. But Anderson has clearly spent so much time on such visual flourishes that he’s neglected the more important aspects of his film.

The meandering, inconsistent plot drags like you wouldn’t believe. It’s an oddly random creation, losing focus of the story to run off on an extended tangent involving pirates which is desperately unfunny and features some bursts of violence which sit uneasily with the tone elsewhere. It’s almost as if Anderson has stitched together a couple of different film ideas without any regard for narrative coherence. Plot points, such as Anjelica Huston’s line about Zissou firing blanks, which questions the legitimacy of Ned being his son, are dropped as soon as they are raised without further discussion.

The characters are also underdeveloped and some very talented actors struggle to inject life into them. Bill Murray is Bill Murray, giving the same deadpan, sarcastic performance he’s been delivering for years, making for a bland centre to the movie. Owen Wilson and Cate Blanchett are both mediocre and their relationship is half-developed. Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon and Bud Cort are all given thankless roles, and it’s up to Willem Dafoe to give the film’s best performance. Dafoe is Klaus, Zissou’s over-protective German crewmember, and he has the monopoly on all the film’s genuinely funny lines. His finest moment comes when he misunderstands proceedings during the ship’s mutiny, and he always raises a smile when he appears. It’s wonderful to see Dafoe succeed so well with a rare comic role but he is sadly underused here.

Dafoe apart, The Life Aquatic is all at sea. It’s laboured, uninvolving and dull, and will do nothing for those who already dislike the work of Wes Anderson. Of course, his fans may well lap it up, there was certainly a lot of laughter at the screening I attended, but I still fail to see the appeal. While it is certainly heartening to see an American filmmaker producing such distinctive, personal films, I fear that Wes Anderson is an acquired taste I may never acquire.