The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

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The One That Got Away
Elbert Ventura on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

In the beginning, there was consensus. Or close to it anyway. Wes Anderson introduced himself to the world with 1996’s Bottle Rocket, which critics hailed as a promising debut—praise that would be ratified by no less than Martin Scorsese, who put the film on his best-of-the-nineties list. The follow-up, the sui generis Rushmore, was even more widely acclaimed. Not since Tarantino had a young American filmmaker emerged with such a keen sense of his own auteurness. By fall 2001, on the eve of the release of his star-studded third feature, Anderson was the biggest thing going in indie film culture.

Then The Royal Tenenbaums made its New York Film Festival world premiere, and Anderson was suddenly that thing that auteurs inevitably become: a flashpoint for partisans. The reviews were mostly kind, many even rapturous. But the dissenting voices were no less assertive: too twee, too stylized, too show-offy, they moaned. The battle lines were drawn. Armies of fanboys battled with unmoved skeptics, even as indie culture—and, as the years went by, the culture at large—internalized the Wes Anderson style.

It was in that context that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou came out in December 2004. Oozing ambition out of every pore and self-consciousness with every move, the movie remains the most divisive entry in the Anderson canon. Unscientific measures like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes rate it as his worst, a judgment with which this Anderson fan concurs. He was approaching the pinnacle of his cultural influence—the “Wes wannabe” was fast becoming the decade’s version of the Tarantino imitator—and had made a movie that felt more like an exhibition. It was the work of an artist who had become the curator of his own style. Seven years later, it remains Exhibit A in the case against Anderson—and, paradoxically, a reminder of his value to film culture.

Anderson’s fourth film certainly echoed Tenenbaums in a number of respects. The small canvases of Bottle Rocket and Rushmore were but a memory. This was an epic art film, its frames crowded with stars, its aesthetic a continuation—indeed, expansion—of Tenenbaums’ OCD fantasia. Tenenbaums, a masterpiece to these eyes, nonetheless evoked a pang of worry when I saw it upon opening. Critics who furrowed their brows about its artifice and self-indulgence weren’t necessarily wrong—they just disliked the same thing admirers liked. But it did represent a turn away from Bottle Rocket and Rushmore and their judicious mix of stylization and spontaneity. In those movies, when characters appeared in the frames, they looked like they got there by themselves. In Tenenbaums—in some scenes anyway—they felt like they were placed there. The dollhouse was enchanting, but I couldn’t blame claustrophobes for feeling stifled. I, too, missed the breeze that blew through Rushmore, and it is why it remains a better film than Tenenbaums.

Aquatic’s premise was Anderson’s most antic yet. Bill Murray plays Steve Zissou, a Cousteauvian oceanographic explorer/documentarian going through a midcareer crisis. His last few films have tanked, his personal life is a mess, and his dear friend Esteban (Seymour Cassel) was eaten by a monster fish in his last film. Shortly before he embarks on his newest production, a Melvillean quest to find the shark that killed Esteban, Ned (Owen Wilson), a man claiming to be his long-lost son, enters his life and joins the crew. The crew itself is a dependably Andersonian assemblage, all dressed in identical light-blue suits and red caps, each handed a cartoonish trait: the needy, impetuous Klaus (Willem Defoe); the bearded, be-turbaned Vikram (Waris Ahulwalia); the guitar-strumming Pele (Seu Jorge). As if the boat weren’t crowded enough, joining the trip are the “bond company stooge” (Bud Cort) and a pregnant, gum-chewing reporter (Cate Blanchett).

Replicating Tenenbaums’ bursting-at-the-seams mise-en-scène, The Life Aquatic is in every way a bigger affair. Tenenbaums conquered New York; Aquatic conquers the oceans. One could almost see the calculation that went through the head of Anderson, who is nothing if not also a film critic, thinking through his own filmography and evolution like he would with any other auteur: Here was a compelling head-to-head match-up, the famously controlling director versus the wild and uncontrollable sea.

It’s no contest. Every inch of Life Aquatic is testimony to Anderson’s obsessiveness and proficiency. The artifice that irritated some viewers in Tenenbaums is foregrounded even more here. The meticulous and fantastical production design spills over with details; repeat viewings reveal witty flourishes hidden in plain sight. And it’s all of a piece: this is a coherent and fully formed world, sprung from a children’s-book sensibility, right down to the retro look (Team Zissou’s equipment is all antique and analog) and the names of its far-flung destinations (Loquasto, Port au Patois, the Ping Islands). The movie’s pièce de resistance is the tour Steve gives Ned of his ship, the Belafonte: The whole vessel is seen in cross-section, and the camera glides delightedly from one room to the next, as Steve narrates each one’s purpose.

Later in the movie, Blanchett’s reporter says of her unborn child, “In twelve years, he’ll be eleven and a half.” Steve responds, “That was my favorite age”—a blunt declaration of the Andersonian sensibility. Indeed, if The Life Aquatic transmitted a frisson of giddiness, it was that of a kid playing with the biggest train set he’s ever seen (as Orson Welles once called a film studio). Shot in Cinecittà Studios in Italy, the movie has the aura of a fantasy fulfilled (no less than another recent famous Cinecittà-filmed opus, Gangs of New York). The movie-within-the-movie element only clinched it: informed by Truffaut’s Day for Night, Aquatic’s critique of the artist under duress was as close to confessional meta that Anderson had come. For the movie-mad director, that magic name—Cinecittà—that hovered over his production must have given him license to dream big, to make something of a statement.

Perhaps that was why that first viewing seven years ago was so disconcerting. For here was a deeply personal work, the kind that we all want our auteurs to make—and I walked out of the theater mildly amused but completely unaffected. I found much to like, even adore, in The Life Aquatic. Yet—and here the hard bigotry of high expectations rears its head—it simply didn’t belong in the company of his previous achievements. Its tics and flourishes, one piled on top of the other, delighted and irritated in equal parts. The enervated deadpan that had become his signature came to seem affected. (It’s somehow fitting that the killing of Seymour Cassell’s character impels the narrative—the absence of the disarming realness he brought to Rushmore as Max Fischer’s dad gets at what ails this movie.) Everything in Aquatic was recognizably Anderson’s, but style had calcified into shtick.

And in contrast to his three previous films, all of which had moved me, The Life Aquatic didn’t invoke so much as a twinge of wistfulness. The tension and sadness that peeked through in his previous films were absent. (Murray’s turn here is a curious disappointment—he’s hilarious, all right, but he seems almost bored; he doesn’t even begin to approach the depths of Herman Blume). When one intended emotional peak came—Ned’s death scored to The Zombies’ “The Way I Feel Inside”—I even felt a new response: embarrassment. For here was self-parody at a moment of high seriousness. Years later, it remains the least convincing scene in Anderson’s oeuvre.

Much was made of the fact that The Life Aquatic was the first screenplay Anderson had written without Owen Wilson, leading many to wonder whether Noah Baumbach, who served as Anderson’s writing partner, was the culprit. But if Baumbach were to blame it would be for not having enough influence, not for having too much. (Indeed, Baumbach’s movies since then have been increasingly jagged and raw, qualities that Aquatic could have used more of.) The Life Aquatic is in every way Anderson’s—the most “Wes” of all his movies.

Indeed, the experience of unadulterated Wes-ness leads one to ask whether a bit of constraint might be good for the artist. The Life Aquatic was Anderson’s biggest budget, production, and canvas up to that point. Up there on the screen was the uncompromised vision of a man who got everything he wanted. For that matter, the same went for Anderson’s fictional counterpart: Steve Zissou, for all his woe-is-me anguish, lives a fantasy life of grand adventure. Compare that with the scale of Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, and the crimped realities of their protagonists. In a way, that’s what’s been missing from Anderson’s movies since: the sense of limits, real limits, not the manufactured ones of a famous oceanographer, or of pampered American tourists seeking truth in India (The Darjeeling Limited), or of the hipster filmmaker trying to run a chaotic set. In Bottle Rocket’s Dignan and Max Fischer, Anderson mined pathos from juxtaposing outsized dreams with modest means. Steve Zissou doesn’t even belong in the same world—he seems like a character Max Fischer dreamed up for one of his plays.

Seven years later, the impressions from that first viewing have remained largely intact. One watches Life Aquatic today marveling at its maker’s all-consuming vision. It’s a vision worth revisiting—it is, among other things (and here’s a belated discovery), the greatest showcase for Anderson’s arch sense of humor, with its aversion to punchlines and fondness for the off-center laugh. And perhaps Life Aquatic got something out of his system. While I’m not especially fond of The Darjeeling Limited, it was less inert and had a touch more of the freewheeling than Aquatic. Fantastic Mr. Fox, meanwhile, saw him make the obvious move that no one thought of all these years: a stop-motion animated movie. For once, the dollhouse perfection fit. Centered around a protagonist that evoked the blinkered scrappiness of Dignan, Max Fischer, and Royal Tenenbaum, it proved to be his best movie since Tenenbaums.

Anderson soldiers on, now burdened by the expectations he’s raised and the culture he’s shaped. We watch movies within a specific context, and Wes Anderson, for better and for worse, has shaped that context. Precocity, preciousness, and quirk are now as pervasive in everything we watch as irony and hitmen were in the ‘90s. Indeed, when I first saw The Life Aquatic that winter of 2004, I wondered whether, removed from fickle fashion and the appropriation of the Anderson style by so many others, the film would one day be revealed as an underestimated gem. The possibility still stands, but that day has not yet come.