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 15 minute making of featurette from "Starz on the Set"

 

NUDITY REPORT

  • Robyn Cohen plays a crew member who is topless constantly. She shows her breasts in four scenes, two of them in clear medium shots, two others far from the camera.
  • She also show her breasts in an additional deleted scene.

The Critics Vote ...

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. The production budget was about $25 million. It grossed $24 million.
  • movies.yahoo.com. average grades: B- from the critics, B from Yahoo voters. Lots of clips available.

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+. Gloriously original, offbeat, and funny. Also tragic. And quite affecting. I'm not convinced that Wes Anderson can entertain mainstream audiences, but he can certainly entertain me. I read this as a brilliant cult film, ala Lost in Translation, which makes it a classic C+ by our system, but if I used a traditional Ebert system, I'd give it three and a half or maybe even four stars

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