MOVIES: Ode to "The Life Aquatic"
"I'm going to go on an overnight drunk, and in 10 days I'm going to set out to find the shark that ate my friend and destroy it." — Steve Zissou
I've rhapsodized before about this wonderful piece of quirky whimsy, one of my favorite two or three movies from 2004. Now that it's out on DVD, it's become one of my favorite material possessions. Yep, I'm a card-carrying member of Team Zissou.
Director/writer Wes Anderson is an accomplished miniaturist, an obsessed detail man whose movies like "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" have been as much about setting as they are about character. His worlds are fully inhabited, with a glimpsed background wallpaper or throwaway book cover the result of hours of work and thought. In "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," his obsession takes control, creating a bizarre adventure story/comedy/drama fusion unlike anything else, but utterly wonderful if you let it take you for a ride. It's the kind of movie that polarized both audiences and critics, some of whom felt Anderson's self-referential insular worldview is getting a bit tired. If you see "Bill Murray" and "comedy" and are expecting "Ghostbusters III," you ain't getting it. It's not a "comedy," although there are some very funny moments despite Anderson's constant melancholy tone. It's in the "Brazil" or "Buckaroo Banzai" school of dry deadpan comedy.
What's fascinating about it is it's a study of a famed adventurer in his decline, the story of the heroes after the curtain falls and they face aging and irrelevance. Murray so wonderfully embodies Zissou in all his cranky, embittered curmudgeon-hood. His crew of misfits (Willem Dafoe's strange German man-child really stands out on a second viewing, and Owen Wilson gives by far his most effective, least smart-assed performance yet as Zissou's possible son) are all distinct personalities. There's a sharp turn at the end which seems almost mawkish, yet it's possible it tells us it's not all we expect it to be (at least in my theory -- hint -- in the very final scene, look at the man smoking a pipe on the ship). I like my movies with layers, and Anderson excels at giving us things to look at and think about.
The DVD is a treat and a half, produced by the always-amazing people at The Criterion Collection. The two-disc set features a commentary by Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach (which I've only listened to a small part of, but which sounds great), deleted scenes, several short featurettes, a documentary (which boasts lots of great on-the-set Bill Murray impromptu footage, but could've used a little more structure), production design spotlights and more. There's a nifty mini-concert by Seu Jorge, the Brazilian actor who performs David Bowie songs in pidgin Portuguese throughout the movie. (Why? I don't know why. But I have to admit his interpretations are strangely catchy and otherworldly, and it's great to see them spotlighted apart from the film.)
I don't guess "The Life Aquatic" is a perfect movie, but it's perfect for me. Like I said in my earlier review, it's got ships, pirates, Bill Murray, imaginary wildlife, David Bowie, Jeff Goldblum -- what more do you need? And despite all the wretched events and horrible setbacks that befall Team Zissou, it retains a shimmering, bruised optimism at the end of the day. "This is an adventure," Zissou says as the credits roll, and he's talking about the whole shebang. Just so.