Reviewed by Greg King
Director: Wes Anderson
Stars: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston, Noah Taylor, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, Bud Cort, Seu Jorge, Seymour Cassell.
The droll wit and eccentric style of Wes Anderson have become something of an acquired taste through his three previous films (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tannenbaums). But even fans of Anderson’s idiosyncratic style may find his latest and most ambitious film to date something of a disappointment. The Life Aquatic, which tells the story of a famous oceanographer who has now fallen on hard times, is bursting with ideas, and its multiple layered subplots and rich characters seem very much in the vein of vintage Altman or even Paul Thomas Anderson. However, Anderson’s deliberately quirky style often comes across as smug and borders on pretentious, and he may have overreached himself this time.
Bill Murray’s deadpan delivery and laidback style is perfectly suited to Anderson’s latest protagonist, Steve Zissou, an oceanographer in the Jacques Costeau mould. But his glory days are now behind him and his legendary research ship the Belafonte. His career is in a decline and, shunned by the academic world at home, he is only appreciated by foreign audiences. He is having trouble raising the funding for his latest expedition, a revenge fuelled trip to find and destroy the jaguar shark that killed his long time friend and partner.
As the team prepare for their mission, partially financed by Steve’s frosty wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), they are joined by a few newcomers, including Ned Plimpton (Anderson’s regular collaborator Owen Wilson), who may or may not be his son. Also joining the crew is hard-nosed reporter Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), who is doing a feature article on Zissou, and Bud Ubell (Bud Cort, from Harold And Maude, etc), an accountant forced upon Steve by the bond company to watch over the project.
Anderson further blurs the line between reality and fiction with the structure of the film – it is shot almost like a real life documentary following team Zissou’s expedition. But some elements, such as the tour of Zissou’s boat are obviously fake constructions, and there’s a cold, artificial quality to the film that immediately creates a distance with the audience. And late in the film comes an unconvincing pirate attack and a desperate rescue mission, but this attempt to generate some drama and suspense falls flat – action is clearly not Anderson’s forte. And the attempt to explore the three way romantic relationship that develops between Blanchett’s character and both Ned and Steve fails to ring true or develop pathos for the sad, arrogant Steve.
It is also hard to warm to any of the defiantly eccentric and dysfunctional characters as Zissou’s support team is a grab bag of foreigners (including Willem Dafoe as Klaus, the highly-strung veteran, and Aussie Noah Taylor as an electronics expert), who seem unable to communicate with each other. As usual, Anderson has assembled a stellar ensemble cast who seem to have fun developing these quirky characters. However, Jeff Goldblum has little to do as the bi-sexual Alistair Hennessy, Steve’s rich, high tech oceanographer rival, and Michael Gambon also coasts through his unflattering and sexually ambivalent role as Steve’s long time financier.
Visually, Anderson continues to develop his own signature style with this film’s garish colour scheme and eye for detail. There is a delightful array of colourful and fascinating underwater creatures, developed courtesy of stop motion animation by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas). But ultimately, there seems to be something missing and The Life Aquatic proves to be a major disappointment from one of cinema’s more precocious talents.