Saturday, March 29, 2008

"This is an adventure."


The Life Aquatic with Steven Zissou | dir. Wes Anderson | 2004


Wes Anderson is my kind of director. I enjoyed The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore immensely. Those films had references to two of my favorite things in the world--J.D. Salinger and "Peanuts." The director has a signature visual style that I completely adore. The films are full of quirky characters, funny dialogue, and a bittersweet finale. The soundtracks to both The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore are full of terrific music selections. So I guess we are totally qualified to be best friends.

But now that I've seen The Life Aquatic with Steven Zissou, I'm not too sure anymore. It is no way a bad film but it is certainly an unbalanced one. For those who liked Anderson's previous films for its humor, style, and music, you will not be completely disappointed--this film has all that flair exploding on screen. Unfortunately, it feels like it's all been done before: the deadbeat deliveries, the eccentric characters, the sixties-era soundtrack, the bright, pastel colors. It feels like The Royal Tenenbaums all over again, only this time, it's on a fancy boat instead of a fancy New York household.

I guess a director can be forgiven for trying to relive what made his previous films successful. The main problem I have with The Life Aquatic is, unlike Anderson's previous films, it doesn't have that wonderful balance of both substance and style; it's about eighty-percent of style and a disappointing twenty-percent of substance. The film certainly looks visually stunning, but the formula that includes quirky characters, funny dialogue, and a bittersweet finale is wearing off.

Bill Murray finally gets a starring role in an Anderson film as the Steve Zissou, a obnoxious, middle-aged oceanographer who is seeking revenge after his best friend, Esteban, was eaten by what seemed like a jaguar shark. He plans to make a second part to his just-released documentary regarding the trip that led to Esteban's death. This time, it's going to be all about finding the shark and killing it.

Before his journey starts, Zissou meets Ned (Owen Wilson), who may or may not be his son. Zissou embraces Ned as his son anyway, and asks him to join Team Zissou, much to his estranged wife, Eleanor's (Anjelica Huston) indifference towards the situation.

Of course, Ned joins Team Zissou, along with a team of eccentric and sometimes funny characters like the German man who worships Zissou (Williem Dafoe), the cameraman (Waris Ahluwalia), the safety expert/man who sings cool David Bowie songs in Portuguese (Seu Jorge), and many others. Team Zissou is also often joined by unpaid college interns who are usually given the chores of hard labor on the ship. But this time around, Team Zissou is joined by a pregnant female reporter, Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), who still has some faith in Zissou even though he's merely a has-been.

The large ensemble cast doesn't do the film any favors. Sure, they are solid comic relief but are also portrayed as walking, talking caricatures. The drama in this film usually derives from the Zissou-Ned-Jane love triangle, which I thought was rather bland and uninteresting. The love triangle doesn't contribute much to the father-son relationship that serves as a centerpiece to the film. In result, I didn't care much for the father-son relationship. I wish there was more of an emphasis on the love triangle between Zissou, Eleanor, and Zissou's nemesis, Allie (Jeff Goldblum). Goldblum is a total scene stealer and I wish he was in the film more. There is a lot left unsaid between Zissou and Allie.

But I was enchanted by the beauty of the vibrant animation throughout the film. Most importantly, I found myself touched by this eccentric oceanographer who learns to embrace those around him. Then again, I didn't find myself caring too much throughout the film because, not only did the film want to be about a father-son relationship, it was also about a man coming in terms with his life, an estranged marriage, a blooming new romance, a journey of revenge, and a tale of two rivals. There were so many things this film wanted to be, but everything was so scattered to the point that it was difficult to appreciate what those various subplots had to offer.

Rating: 6/10

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