In the context of this Marathon, it seems a little strange to find a movie like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou being made not even a decade in to Wes Anderson’s career as a filmmaker. The story of a middle-aged, past-his-prime documentarian struggling to keep afloat in a sea of middle-aged malaise (I promise to limit the nautical puns), the movie occasionally comes off as a vulnerable and nakedly self-aware think-piece on a person’s evolving (and devolving) worth to those around him. It almost feels like the movie Anderson might make a decade or two from now, should the luster of his own career diminish and should he therefore feel the need to stage his own comeback. That this project is instead the direct follow-up to Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, arguably his two best-received films, strikes me as a somewhat quizzical career move.
At the same time, though, The Life Aquatic couldn’t serve as a more ideal companion piece to the other three films we’ve seen in this Marathon so far. Broadly speaking, each of Wes Anderson’s earlier works grapple with the never-ending process of self-evaluation, as we work to somehow narrow the gulf between our own perceived self-worth and the value others see within us. Anderson explores this at different life stages, from adolescence (Rushmore) to early adulthood (Bottle Rocket) to old age (Tenenbaums). I suppose it was only inevitable that Anderson would eventually venture into midlife crisis territory, and perhaps it was in fact a shrewd move on his part to get it out of his system well before he could ever have the chance to indulge whatever middle-aged insecurities he might someday feel inclined to share.
The Life Aquatic is also noteworthy for dropping his frequent collaborator Bill Murray into the lead role for the first (only) time. The titular Captain Steve Zissou, embittered and saddened by his partner’s untimely death at the jaws of a rare Jaguar Shark, is plagued with numerous other issues. His relationship with his wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) is on the verge of dissipating. Eleanor’s rekindling friendship with Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), her ex-husband and his arch-rival, threatens him (despite the film’s strong implication toward his own infidelity). The documentary whose production resulted in his partner’s death is poorly received at its premiere. The research vessel he uses for his film expeditions, the Belafonte, is dilapidated and increasingly expensive to maintain.
To cope with the painful erosion of all his successes, Steve has a plan of action. He announces his next project, which is to track down and kill the same Jaguar Shark that killed his partner. He manages to snag interest from a magazine to write a fluffy cover-feature, and he develops an attraction to Jane (Cate Blanchett) the pregnant single mother-to-be that is assigned to the project. He also begins forging a relationship with Ned (Owen Wilson), who may or may not be his long-lost son. Basically, creating new things in his life to control becomes Steve Zissou’s mechanism for coping with the lousy existence crumbling around him.
There are a lot of arcs and threads to tend to in The Life Aquatic, just as there were in Tenenbaums. Movies this busy usually tend to collapse under their own weight (Spider-Man 3), turn grim and heavy-handed (Biutiful) or become airheaded and thoughtless (last week’s disastrous Dark Shadows). The kindest compliment to be paid to Anderson is in saying just how well he manages to treat each topic meaningfully, yet with a light touch. This is where his trademark affinity for deadpan and for ironic compositions really comes in handy. When it comes to the deficits in his life, Steve feels distant, aloof and a little too cool for school. At no point does he give the impression that all the issues weighing him down are becoming too much to handle, and therefore, the emotional arc he follows remains ostensibly flat and passive. Even the movie’s two action sequences, both of which involve Team Zissou warring with pirates, float along with a comic lack of intensity.
Such a chilly attitude towards Captain Zissou’s many tribulations may come off either as an emotional cop-out or as unbearably twee – and it might be an entirely fair conclusion to make, were one to judge purely from the script written by Anderson and Kicking & Screaming director Noah Baumbach. But Anderson wisely entrusts Murray to tackle Steve’s emotional undercurrent. An indisputable master of underplaying a character for comedic effect, Murray’s face tells us what is going through Steve’s mind. His performance reveals such vulnerability, such insecurity, that he winds up doing most of the movie’s heavy lifting. By the time Team Zissou finally tracks down that Jaguar Shark, and Murray gives us the closest thing we get to a weepy moment, we experience the culmination of all the work Murray put in to his character. Like many of the best scenes in Anderson’s movies, the moment is greatly subdued, yet surprisingly moving.
Is The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou as good as Anderson’s previous efforts? I personally don’t think so. Its collection of eccentric misfit characters feel disappointingly peripheral, and nowhere near as fleshed out or imbued with humanity as was seen in The Royal Tenenbaums (Willem DaFoe and Michael Gambon are in this movie, but it hardly seems worthwhile to talk about them). It also does not mesh the deeply hilarious with the deeply humanistic as seamlessly as we saw in Rushmore. With a paltry 53 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, it is possibly the biggest critical disappointment of Anderson’s career so far.
Yet I increasingly have people talk to me about their affection for this movie above Anderson’s other works. For the reasons I just talked about, I’m inclined to share that affection. I wonder whether it will endure in the years to come.