The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I love The Life Aquatic. This is a terrific movie on its own terms, but I need to tell you what it is not, because the marketing campaign was quite misleading. The sample clips on the internet consist of three or four scenes which are quirky-funny in a deadpan way. You'll watch those and get the wrong idea. There are some very funny things in the film, but it ain't filled with yuks, and it ain't filled with gentle whimsy.

So if it isn't a comedy, you're thinking, what is it?

I didn't say it isn't a comedy. Maybe it is. There are a lot of funny moments. But if is a comedy, it certainly is a tragic one. And if it is a tragedy, it certainly is a funny one. In short, it's a comedy about sadness, about the death of loved ones, about violence, about forgiveness, about losing what we once were and the dreams we once followed. Those things, as a rule, are not funny matters unless they are addressed by Mel Brooks, but this is not a balls-to-the-wall, soft hearted, "anything for a laugh" Brooksian comedy. Not even close. This is a peculiar and sometimes grotesque movie which finds humor in tragedy. Imagine Hamlet turned into a dark comedy and told from the POV of Hamlet's father's ghost, and you'll start to get the idea.

The basic storyline is simple. It seems to be the tail end of a declining career for marine researcher and filmmaker Steve Zissou and the crew of the Belafonte. (Get it? Their version of the Calypso is a Calypso singer). The last adventure for the legendary team will be to track down and destroy the gigantic and unknown form of shark that ate Zissou's best friend. What would be the scientific purpose of destroying a one-of-a-kind-creature, he is asked.

 "Revenge."

The Life Aquatic derives its underlying tone from a bittersweet sense of the odd - treating extraordinary occurrences with an odd mix of understated wonderment and blasť acceptance. A long-lost son? Unimaginable sea creatures? A giant jaguar shark? A boatload of pirates? Pillaging the lab of a competing oceanographer? All in a day's work for Team Zissou, the Bizarro-world version of Team Cousteau. Not only is the film odd, but it is odd in an odd way - almost totally lacking in energy. Several of the key actors (especially Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Anjelica Huston) deliver lines in a laid-back, world-weary way that makes it seem like they are sleepwalking. Pointing that out is not criticism on my part, just reporting, or possibly even praise, because the blasť tone is a calculated symphony, and the actors' voices are additional instruments in the orchestra. It seems to work just fine.

Of course, you should not expect a Wes Anderson film to pick a single course and stick to it, any more than you should expect the same from Steve Zissou's Belafonte. During the course of the story, the film plays mind games with the audience by making radical and unexpected turns. It's a comedy. Wait, now I'm watching a thriller. Wait, it's a tragedy. The pirate attack on the Belafonte provides a good example of the film's bold concept. That episode is not played out the way Mel Brooks might do it, by comical corsairs who pull off an operation in such a way that we know nobody will be hurt for real. Not at all. These are real pirates, violent and heavily armed men with nothing to lose. When the Zissou crew is being tied up and threatened, the film switches into the mode of a legitimate thriller, and we fear for the lives of our main characters, as we do in many incidents throughout the movie. Indeed, in the course of the film, Zissou (Bill Murray) loses his best friend and his son.

Well, maybe it's his son. Or not.

What can ya say? The Life Aquatic is truly original. Originality is the ultimate hallmark of genius, the one thing that separates true geniuses from highly competent mortals. Steven Spielberg, for example, is a highly competent director, arguably the greatest ever, but no genius. He blazes no new trails. He simply does things much BETTER than others have done them before. Writer/director Wes Anderson, on the other hand, is a genius. He does things others would never think of. In a world of syncopation, sequels, and copycats, Wes marches to ... I was going to say "to a different drummer", and the drummer part may be right, but Wes doesn't march.

When the band is playing Sousa, Wes is waltzing to Strauss.

I think that's a good thing. It may produce good or bad results, but the instinct itself is good. We need these loopy, original guys.

Watching the Life Aquatic will be one of those film experiences where you'll walk out of the theater unsure whether you liked it. As we say in Texas, the film takes some gettin' used to. In spite of that, it's absolutely worth a watch for those of you who are sick of the usual recycled tripe. Despite the low energy level, and a very slow build, and despite the fact that it the film is ostensibly a comedy, the story even manages to pack a surprisingly strong emotional punch. You won't expect it at all. It's one of those sucker punches that just sneaks up on you when you aren't looking, and doesn't tell you it's coming - like the punches thrown by Steve Zissou himself.

 

DVD INFO

  • widescreen anamorphic (16x9), satisfactory transfer
  • several deleted scenes
  • full-length commentary by Wes Anderson and his co-author
  • a 1