Saturday, January 01, 2005

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 December 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

The Life Aquatic flaunts its artifice. Even as it offers up rounded, three-dimensional characters, it does so in such a way that you can't necessarily believe in their world. A long shot will show the whole of Zissou's ship, the Belafonte, as a cross-section, and the sea creatures are just as obviously artificial as CGI, but are also readily identifiable as the work of a specific artist. It's like writer-director Wes Anderson is challenging you to feel for his characters, even though he will continuously remind you that they are nothing more than parts played by actors in an occasionally surreal movie.

But, of course, that's part of the point. Bill Murray plays Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau-style nature documentarian with a carefully built reputation. Not just a reputation, but a persona that has been so carefully constructed over the past three decades that it's almost impossible to tell where what is staged ends and what is real begins where he is concerned. It's difficult to see what his particular talents are - he's not much of a marine biologist, and his filmmaking isn't so hot. A tour of the Belafonte reveals just how far he's drifted from any scientific ambitions he may once have had (especially a funny contrast of the amounts of care lavished the ship's sauna and lab space). When Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) enters his life, he tries to control this man who may be his son - not maliciously, but in accordance with the dictates of his profession. He's trying to make something as out of his control as the natural world give him a specific shot.

It may make you wonder, as an audience member, what the story behind certain scenes are. Pirates attack the Belafonte in one sequence, and the way they are fought off seems so improbable that one can't help but think that it may be a set-up. But there's nothing except the improbability to suggest that it's not real. Heck, the set-up, with Zissou's dive partner (Seymour Cassel) being eaten by what Zissou describes as a "jaguar shark" and Zissou calmly vowing revenge certainly could be a hoax. You just can't tell, and this seems to weigh on Zissou. He senses that his life has become a parody of itself, but what's a man to do in that situation? How does he tell his life to stop being absurd?

Bill Murray owns this movie. It's probably the best performance by an actor this year, and not just because Murray communicates all that angst, sadness, and strangeness without much oration. That would be enough, but Murray is also funny. He dresses up in silly costumes, delivers his lines with deadpan perfection, and throws himself into the action sequences with manic abandon. It's astounding, really - after Touchstone spiked Murray's Oscar chances with the bizarre release pattern for Rushmore, I figured that was it, his big chance to get an award while still being true to his comic roots. Then came Lost In Translation, and I thought, that's the culmination of his career, right there. Well, either his career just culminated again, or he's established an extraordinary position for himself in the ranks of comic actors. It may be time to just expect brilliance.

Anderson assembles a nifty cast around his star. Jeff Goldblum, for instance, adds a layer of malevolence to his standard dorky scientist persona (which, come to think of it, worked for him in Igby Goes Down, too). Anjelica Huston, as his wife and the reputed brains of his operation, is a formidable but human aristocrat. Willem Dafoe is almost disturbing in how his character worships Zissou. Cate Blanchett's reporter and Owen Wilson's pilot are long-time fans of Zissou, too, but have their own strength. Michael Gambon and Bud Cort have highly amusing roles as the financers of Zissou's new film. And Seu Jorge (Knockout Ned from City of God) sings David Bowie in Portugese to set the scene for the strange.

Worth special mention are the animated sequences created by Henry Selick. Selick's stop-motion creations are uniquely his own, immediately recognizable as the product of the man who directed The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. His sea creatures have sharp, angular designs, and move in unexpected directions. They look like nothing of this earth, but somehow inspire a sense of wonder anyway. It's notable that these fantastic creatures bring out what's real and human is Zissou; somewhere underneath his own artifice and need for nature to follow a script, he still loves them, finding delight in a garishly-colored seahorse he's presented at an otherwise dreadful party.

Even in our world, sea life can be stranger than many people are capable of imagining; what Anderson and Selick create is often just on the same level as what you can see in an IMAX underwater doc. So it makes sense that just as aquatic life is strange but amazing, so is The Life Aquatic. As with the types of films real-life Steve Zissous make, it'll leave you thinking that it was a little stranger than you expected, but that it stretched the imagination and mind in a good way.

3 comments:

Doug said...

Great review. I agree with the rating, its a great movie, but not quite perfect. I would say I still thought Tenenbaums was a bit better.

I'm still not sure what the movie is really getting at, if anything. Perhaps that people don't have the same kind of wonder with new discoveries they way they once did say in Cousteau's day.

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