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Famed oceanographer/documentarian Steve Zissou commands his vessel in search of the legendary Jaguar Shark to avenge the death of his sea-faring colleague.
“Call me Ned.”
That might as well be the opening line to Wes Anderson’s fourth comedy, a polite and intelligent satire on oceanographic explorations. This is not to indicate that this movie is a direct parody of “Moby Dick”, but there are some relevant similarities that demand attention.
For one, Steve Zissou is harshly passionate and retailiatory about marine life. Cynical and disillusioned, he is an egocentric specimen of Wes Anderson characterization. While he may have once been at the top of his career in aquatic documentaries, his confidence in his life work has faltered and diminished over the past nine years.
Anderson and Noah Baumbach wrote the character of Zissou with Bill Murray in mind. Murray, who re-joins team Anderson after such brilliant performances in “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums”, commands the screen as the troubled and bewildered captain of the vessel Belafonte.
The film opens with Zissou’s latest cinematic endeavour: the introduction of a deadly leaviathan known as the Jaguar Shark. With vengeance baffling the scientific and fanfaring communities, Zissou declares he will kill the elusive fish for eating his beloved colleage, Esteban.
Ned, played by long-time Anderson collaborator Owen Wilson, is his probable son, stemming from a twenty-nine-year-old one night stand. Ned approaches Steve on the night of this theatric occasion and becomes the simplistic Ishmael to Murray’s demented Ahab. With those characters in place, Willem Dafoe steals the movie as Zissou’s overly loyal chief engineer, Klaus.
“Calm, collected, German,” Zissou describes his emotional crewman. The introduction suggests the subtle charm typical of Anderson classics. Later in the movie, there is a terrific scene when Zissou dares his crew to cross a line on the Belafonte’s floorboards in order to separate his faithful believers from the mutineers.
“Look, if you’re not against me, don’t cross this line,” Zissou declares. “If yes, do.” When Klaus cross the line with grand enthusiasm, Zissou points out his mistake, which results in hilarious confusion.
Other noteworthy members of team Zissou are: Anjelica Huston as his estranged wife, Eleanor; Michael Gambon as his financier, Oseary Drakoulias; and Cate Blanchett as a touring investigative reporter, Jane Winslett-Richardson. But the one who surpasses all levels of entertainment is Seu Jorge. As Pele, Jorge is perpetually strumming his acoustic guitar to David Bowie songs translated into Portuguese. Fans of Anderson will remember the director has a definite talent for using music in his movies. For those interested, I recommend checking out Seu Jorge’s “Studio Sessions”, which features complete renditions of the Bowie classics heard in the movie. You can find it on iTunes.As evidenced by the red woolen caps worn by the crew, the film is an honorary reference to the life and style of Jacques-Yves Costeau, whose ship was named The Calypso. Therefore, the fact that Zissou named his beaten-down submarine hunter the Belafonte is a tongue-in-cheek allusion. Music fans will remember that Harry Belafonte reached international stardom by singing commercialized calypsos.
Equipped with laboratories, saunas, and editing labs so the crew can produce assemblies while on voyage, the Belafonte is presented to the audience as an open-walled theatrical set. With professorial tone, Zissou guides the audience as the camera moves laterally from deck to deck. In an age obsessed with steadicam movement and digital effects, it is refreshing to see a director incorporate theatrical use of set design. Under the water, schools of fluorescent fish paint the background with surrealistic color. Some of them are even real.
In addition to filling his sets with vibrant colors and interior detail, Anderson and company manufactured the largest ever puppet to be used in stop-motion animation. The jaguar shark, measuring over eight feet in length, required five hand-cranked controls in order to perform the simulated swimming action. Does it look real? Absolutely not. On screen, it looks ridiculous. But that adds to the comical effect of Zissou’s obsession.
Those are some of the elements that succeed in “The Life Aquatic”. Unfortunately, there is something missing from the recipe of seafood chowder. And I am forced to acknowledge that Owen Wilson’s southern gentleman feels out of place here. Uncertain of his placement in the Zissou family tree, his character comes across as an intrusion to the aquatic mission. And his Kentuckian accent, based partly on fellow actor Will Patton, is atrocious.
Complicating plot material further is his relationship with Blanchett’s reporter, Winslett-Richardson. Their involvement together creates a rift between the maybe-father and maybe-son. But you don’t truly believe it because the chemistry between Wilson and Blanchett feels wooden and forced. There are many features to be favored in this movie. Their romance is not one of them.
Critics put down this movie when it was originally released, and did not seem to grasp the intelligent nature behind and under it. There is a glowing hilarity in the concept of a Costeauian oceanographer who appears more concerned with cinematic story structure than the actual environment. Consider the role of Pele as the omnipresent musician as he is constantly harmonizing in the background. Ever wonder what folk musicians like that are doing on “Shark Week” escapades like “Blue Water/ White Death”?
Audiences in search of a moralistic comedy might do better with one of Anderson’s earlier works. Those are the films that generate memories and tears. In light of its flaws, “The Life Aquatic” is more of a whimsical adventure than a meaninful relationship story.