The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou finds director/writer Wes Anderson once again discovering quirk and insanity in the completely mundane. He plumbs the depths of singular filmmaking this time by following around oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray). Zissou would be a lot like Jacques Cousteau, if not for a tendency to outfit his crew in red beanies and Speedos. The red beanie is the definitive sigil of Team Zissou, and the film, much like the ocean faring crew, shares a similarly distinct and delightfully bizarre style.
Like Cousteau, Steve Zissou makes underwater documentaries. In the midst of making his latest film, he along with his best friend and partner Esteban are attacked by a mysterious new species of shark which Steve dubs the “Jaguar Shark”. The shark eats Esteban; Zissou loses the camera and his proof. After the debut of his new film, Steve vows to find the shark that ate Esteban and kill it, possibly with dynamite. When asked what scientific purpose this would serve, Zissou sagely responds: “Revenge.”
If Kill Bill is an homage to chop soky cinema then The Life Aquatic is surely a love letter to the likes of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. It’s a world where documentary naturalists are regarded (at least by Anderson’s camera) as rock stars and where exploring the murky deep somehow ends up being highly competitive. Zissou has lost his competitive edge, and after a string of failures a lot of the respect he used to have from the scientific community and his fans. He’s been outshined by his documentarian competitor Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), who has a sharp fleet of ships and a big storage facility full of equipment while Steve mucks around on an old World War 2 era freighter which he’s outfitted for research and tricked up with things like a state of the art spa and a gourmet kitchen.
It is in this condition of disgrace and disrepair that Steve encounters Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a guy who is probably his son. The pair bond over a beach full of electric jellyfish and soon Ned joins the Zissou crew, changing his name to Kingsley Zissou, as his probably father would have intended had he known Ned existed. The chemistry between Murray and Wilson is a brilliant mix of awkward and surreal, with the pair sort of sidestepping pressing father and son issues in favor of discussing jackwhales and sucker punching.
With a journalist in tow, Steve, Ned/Kingsley, and the Speedo loving, red beanie wearing Team Zissou board their ship the Belafonte in search of the beast which swallowed their friend. Under pressure Steve promises not to kill the creature, but brings along plenty of dynamite anyway. What follows are a lot of little moments of sheer lunatic genius as the crew fights pirates, abuses interns, and steals cappuccino machines. The film is replete with wonderful, out of left field occurrences strung together by surly dead-pan delivery from Murray. Surrealism floats to and fro through the film like a madcap painting, leaving its mark on every scene as big stars drift around and through them. People like Willem Dafoe and Cate Blanchett turn up in significant roles, with Willem a German second in command and Blanchett as a pregnant ex-Zissou fan out to expose him.
Like Anderson’s last film, The Royal Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic is a slick atmospheric piece of celluloid. It doesn’t let little things like reality get in the way of style, utilizing stop-motion master Henry Selick to cook up unique underwater creatures in the mix with more grounded things like bulbous yellow submarines. As always, Anderson finds the perfect musical score to make all his scattered weirdness fit together, this time utilizing music by David Bowie, performed acoustic and sung in Portuguese.
The film is admittedly scattered and outlandish, which probably means like just about everything Anderson does it’s not for everyone. For those who get it, The Life Aquatic is a lovable masterpiece replete with oddity and imagination. The film isn’t exactly a comedy nor is it a drama or a fantasy, rather it falls somewhere in the midst of all three of those. I can’t exactly remember laughing while I watched it, but what the film lacks in occasional belly laughs it makes up for in continuous chuckles. It doesn't quite make the emotional connection of some of Anderson's other films, but a day after seeing it I’m still stuck giggling over it, and in what is no doubt quite confusing for them, asking random people if they too are sick of those dolphins. This is a movie ambitious beyond reason, rich in detail and lovingly paid attention. It isn’t a perfect movie, but it is a perfect viewing experience. It, like everything Anderson does is undeniably addictive. Savor the irony, gorge yourself on the nuance. Embrace Steve Zissou and his Life Aquatic.