Afloat on the Life Aquatic
An unbound imagination can be a glorious thing, especially when it's one as potent as that of director Wes Anderson. It's also fortunate that Anderson has the clout to present his ideas on the big screen, for anyone who's seen Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums can attest to the uniqueness and playfulness of his style and how welcome those elements are in a bland cinematic landscape. One barely needs to look at a few seconds of any Anderson film to recognize it as one of his, and the viewer may only need to watch for a few minutes before wanting to see more.
However, much can also be said for containment and focus, and that's perhaps where Anderson's latest work, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, suffers. Previously, Anderson's films contained so many ideas they threatened to burst at the seams; with The Life Aquatic, it appears that's happened. What's served up are moments and characters singularly delightful, quirky, sad, and just plain weird, but they veer from their center in too many different directions and varying distances.
Bill Murray valiantly attempts to hold the whole thing together as the piece's central character, Steve Zissou, a washed-up version of Jacques Cousteau. He's made a living taking himself and his crew out on marine life expeditions, where they film the events and edit them, right there on their seagoing vessel, into documentaries. The group carries dynamics familiar to the Wes Anderson universe -- the characters are eclectic, peculiar, and often have strong personalities driven by the impulses of their particular traits. And there are a lot of them -- the matter-of-fact way in which they interact and their subtle comfort with themselves are what give Anderson's micro-populations their lived-in realism, so that, as strange as each of these people are, one can easily accept the fact that they've existed in this world for years.
This routineness, in fact, may be the source of Steve's alienation. Accelerated by the death (via a rare shark) of his closest crew member, Steve, already past his prime, finds himself reluctantly grasping for a direction for his crew's latest expedition. Even with the goal of hunting down the beast that ate his friend, Steve looks as if he can hardly be bothered with doing his job anymore. The answer seems to have come from the appearance of a man who claims to be his long-lost son (Owen Wilson), giving the old captain a new spark of interest to hold on to. Meanwhile, the movie spends much time showing how Steve is surrounded by whimsical, extraordinary things, such as the presences of colorful, uniquely animated sea creatures (uniquely animated because, well, they're actually animated). He's lost the awe of the world he lives in; maybe he's never had much of it in the first place.
The theme of self-imposed alienation, mostly due to a character's inherent inability to move outside the bounds imposed by the individual's own personality, is one Anderson likes to visit. Thus, Murray, an Anderson regular and a resident of the alienation train (having just passed through Lost in Translation), should fit this subject like a glove, and he does. Murray plays Steve effortlessly -- almost too effortlessly, actually. His character lacks the brooding intensity of Jason Schwartzman's Max Fischer or the likeable, easy-going charm of Gene Hackman's Royal Tenenbaum. Steve Zissou's primary trait seems to be self-pity, and this makes for a tough protagonist to get behind -- the less he's motivated to do anything, the less we're motivated to follow his tale. Wilson plays his foil, and although his straight-arrow performance is a nice departure from his usual comic turns (it's also a very good performance in its own right), the energy between the two major characters seems too lackadaisical to keep the ship on its course. Meanwhile, all the side characters and more than a few really random events take their own bites out of the central focus. The effect is one of drifting at sea.
But perhaps this is entirely appropriate. Steve's dilemma comes from his realization that he's floated through life, letting the tide take him where it will, and that he hasn't found anything truly of worth to hold on to in that whole time. So, on what he claims to be his final adventure, he floats around some more and the movie floats with him. Anderson counts on his appealing combination of offbeat character-driven humor and unpredictable moments of bittersweet revelation to lure the audience into staying on the ship for the whole ride. It's mostly enjoyable, especially if you're less concerned about where you'll end up than you are with the strange and funny things you might encounter on the way.
(Released by Touchstone Pictures and rated "R" for language, some drug use, violence and partial nudity. Opens in Los Angeles on December 10, 2004.)
Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.