French film critic turned director Francois Truffaut once wrote that directors should be auteurs (authors), or more broadly, a director’s films should all be stamped with his or her unique style. When thinking about directors with their own style who make movies these days, I can think of a small handful off the top of my head: Tim Burton, Quentin Tarantino, and Ridley Scott come to mind. Some directors, however, live in their own universe and invite us in occasionally to check it out. This sentiment especially applies to Texas native Wes Anderson. He has four distinctive movies under his belt to date: Bottle Rocket, which I like; Rushmore, which I don’t; The Royal Tenenbaums, which is one of my favorite movies from 2001; and the subject of this review, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
Set firmly in Wes Andersonland, this movie is about an aging Jacque Cousteau wannabe Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), who along with his red-capped, light-blue jumpsuit wearing, glock-toting crew, sail the oceans aboard their ancient research vessel filming underwater documentaries. We enter the story as Steve is presenting his latest documentary, which includes footage of the day his best friend and partner was killed by a rare and endangered Jaguar shark. Unfortunately the documentary has no footage of the shark itself, so there is question of the validity of Zissou’s claims. During that film festival Steve meets Kentucky pilot Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) who might be his son.
Desperate to come up with money for his next outing (which involves tracking down the shark who ate his friend), Steve takes Ned underneath his wing (giving him his own red cap and Glock in the process) and makes him a member of his crew. Ned helps Steve out by giving him a good deal of money to help finance his latest venture. Many odd things ensue including encounters with Steve’s partly gay nemesis Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), Filipino pirates, David Bowie songs sung in Portuguese, antagonistic pregnant reporters (Cate Blanchett, a million miles away from her role as Galadriel), and many colorful sea creatures that only exist in Wes Andersonville.
I am still not sure about how I feel about The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Is it funny? Holy cow yes. Many scenes had me laughing outright, and many scenes had me thinking “what the Hell was that all about?”. I will tell you about the things I like: Bill Murray is on target as the opportunistic oceanographer who is feeling a little desperate as he ages. He brings his usual smug self to the role but adds enough humanity to the character to keep us from hating him. Owen Wilson still needs his nose fixed, but he plays a good stand-up southern gentleman trying to fit in with Zissou’s crew. Most of all I love Willem Dafoe’s turn as Klaus Daimler, an overly sensitive German who becomes jealous at Ned and Steve’s sort-of father-son relationship. He plays the role for laughs, but without making the emotional Klaus some sort of effeminate wuss.
What I can’t pinpoint is why I have reservations about the movie. I would hate to think it was because it is simply too weird. The plot is actually sort of pedestrian, and I can see someone like Michael Bay taking the same exact plot and characters and turning it into a pompous action movie. What I think I need to do is watch it a few more times, and I’m giving it a higher rating than I might have because I am spending a good deal time thinking about it – the relationships between the characters that seem totally goofy on one hand and touching on the other, the downright weird cinematography, and the plain silliness of the proceedings. I want to go back to Wes Andersontown for another visit so he must have done something right.
Criterion, bless their hearts, has released a one disc, and a two disc special edition at the same time. This section is based on the two disc edition, which contains a good deal more extras. Hooray for Criterion, for not waiting six months to release the special edition! The sight and the sound of this movie are beautifully showcased in this DVD. Wes Anderson does live in his own universe, and this movie deserves to be seen on a system where you can appreciate all of its hyper-unreal glory. Mark Mothersbaugh’s (how appropriate) spare, oddball score is interlaced with the aforementioned acoustic Portuguese renditions of David Bowie songs which all sound crystal clear and are mixed well with the rest of the soundtrack.
This DVD release is jammed-packed with extras (the one disc has some but most are on the second disc), most of which I really enjoyed. The commentary track by writer-director Wes Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumach is fairly interesting except wherever the track was recorded had a good deal of background noise like it was recorded in a bar or something. But still they have some fun anectodes about the production, plus commentaries always give me a chance to inspect the movie on a purely visual basis so I get to see a bunch of little things I missed the first time around while listening to the commentary.
The rest of the extras range from fairly in-depth behind-the-scenes documentaries as well as a collection of the David Bowie songs performed by Seu Jorge. The selection is eclectic and leads me to conlude if you love extras or simply worship Wes Anderson then definitely shell out the few extra bucks for the two disc edition.
Some people are not going to like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou simply because they might think it is too weird. I admit it was almost too much for me, but I’m willing to give movies this bizarre a few more chances. If you have enjoyed other visits to the Wonderful World of Wes Anderson, by all means check this installment out. If you have never been there before then this is a warning: Wes Anderson speaks with his own voice and I don’t think he cares if you don’t understand.