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USA 2005
Directed by
Wes Anderson
118 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Synopsis: Famed oceanographer and documentary-maker Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is on his druthers. His market appeal is waning and his long-time partner has just been eaten by a "jaguar shark". When Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) turns up, claiming to be Steve’s son, Zissou invites him to join what might be his last expedition.

Wes Anderson's marvellously inventive film, did not fare particularly well either critically (somewhat surprisingly), or commercially (with a budget of $50 million this was never going to be easy).  All one can say is that there is no justice in this life, for in terms of both conceptual and technical elegance it is the best thing they director has yet done. Perhaps it was simply a little too surreal for most audiences who preferred the more conventional comedic style of Garden State, a cutesy off-beat comedy that was released around the same time and which was a huge hit for Zach Braff.

Continuing to extend the approach of his previous films Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Anderson creates a unique imaginary world, shaped by the kind of obsessive and dysfunctional sensibility classically associated with children who spend too long alone in their bedroom but informed by adult problems. The Royal Tenenbaums for me was not quite the right vehicle for Anderson’s imaginarium but with The Life Aquatic he gets it perfectly right.

Perhaps drawing on his own childhood experience of the kind of educational comics that used to be made of real-life oceanographer’s Jacques Cousteau’s underwater adventures, Anderson creates an imaginary filmic equivalent with Bill Murray as the underwater explorer facing off mega-wealthy rival explorer, Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), who happens also to be the ex-husband of Zissou's wife, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston, who with Murray had been in Tenenbaums).  Owen Wilson who co-wrote all of Anderson's films but not this one, his place being taken by Noah Baumbach, plays a kind of Anderson alter ego, as Zissou's newly-found heir apparent and a childhood member of the Team Zissou Fan Club, whilst Cate Blanchett plays a pregnant English journalist who joins the expedition on which Zissou intends to revenge himself on the monster that ate his long-time partner.

Whilst script and the performances are all wonderful with well-drawn characters and peppy dialogue with Murray super-dry but not overdoing his dead-pan schtick, Anderson also gives us a real treat with his visual compositions. Robert Yeoman's cinematography and Henry Selick's stop-motion animation create gorgeous visuals whilst an elaborate cutaway version of Zissou’s boat aids wonderfully in giving proceedings a cartoon-like setting. There are characteristically zany Anderson inserts like the Team Zissou member (Seu Jorge) who sings David Bowie songs in Portuguese, a three-legged dog and, in an against-type appearance, Willem Dafoe plays Klaus, a team member who yearns to be recognized for his dedication to Zissou.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is one of those films that is too good for its own good.




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