Sabbath Reviews: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by: Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach

I have never watched a Wes Anderson film before The Life Aquatic. Yet, somehow, the name always brought to mind the words pretentious, quirky, artsy, and once again pretentious. Basically, I couldn’t care less if I never saw a Wes Anderson film because I was already bigoted towards his work. As all prejudices, they are usually unfair and as some prejudices, they can be based in some sort of fact or history.

Bill Murray on the other hand is one of the my favorite actors of all time. That should come as no surprise to anyone. Murray’s a talented motherfucker and has had his hand in some of the most entertaining films of my life, Ghostbusters being an easy mention. Bill Murray is the reason I gave Lost In Translation a shot despite it not being my usual film and while it was a slow film, Murray saved it. I feel like he works some kind of magic spell over anything he’s in that makes you feel like … you don’t care how slow the film is going. You don’t care that it’s all drama stretched out over a long period of time. Bill Murray’s there and everything’s going to be OK.

With The Life Aquatic, a film with an almost 2 hour running time, I thought it would be exactly the same deal. I was only partially right. Bill Murray plays Steve Zissou, a once famous oceanographer who, while making a 2-part documentary ends up losing one of his most valuable friends and teammates. Like Moby Dick, he vows revenge on the creature that ate his friend and the whole movie has that as an underlying plot. The real meat of the film comes from Owen Wilson’s character, Ned, who is Zissou’s son and who has never met his father/hero. Zissou takes Ned in and welcomes him as part of the team. Meanwhile, a pregnant reporter played by Cate Blanchett tags along and ends up developing feelings for Ned, while Zissou develops a weird love/hate relationship with her. Friction between the family is obviously abound.

I’m going to pause right now to also mention Willem Dafoe’s character Klaus. Klaus is one of the Zissou crew and immediately takes to hating Ned. He has the utmost respect and adoration for his boss and seems to be constantly out for his approval. Dafoe proves again why he’s such a great actor and actually a lot of my favorite comedic moments stem from him in this movie.

Along their journey they steal equipment from a fellow oceanographer who happens to be Zissou’s wife’s ex-husband, get boarded by pirates, and meet with another tragedy at the end of the film that I didn’t see coming.

In that, the movie took me by surprise. I’m not sure, even after watching it, if what I just watched is a comedy or a tragedy. Somehow, without me knowing it, I actually grew to like the characters even though they were all completely odd. Because of that, the tragic ending actually got to me … and the strange thing? It didn’t seem to bother the other characters one iota. I guess that’s just part of Anderson’s strangeness.

I can’t give a definite answer on this film. Did I love it? No. Did I hate it? Definitely not. I can’t say YOU’LL love it, like it, hate it, dislike it. When it comes to these movies, I hear “You either love it or you hate it” thrown around because it’s so out there … but it’s bullshit, because I’m not sure what I feel about this movie. I think partially because I have a hard time separating the movie from the amazing cast. Could it have been the same without them? Even the director said it was written with Bill Murray in mind and nobody else could have done it.

We just lost Leslie Nielsen, people. Bill Murray’s getting up there in age and who knows how much longer we’ll have this lovable actor around. Don’t see it because of how you feel about the director — good or bad — see it because once again we’re treated to Bill Murray showing us he can do anything. He can do drama, he can do comedy, give him an AK-47 and I’m sure he can do action. I’d say just go out, watch it, and support him.

And you know what? I’m not a huge Owen Wilson fan. I like him. His nose bothers me. But I don’t love him. Yet, I really liked him here. Willem Dafoe I’ve already talked about and Cate Blanchett … I just wanted to give her a hug and help her raise her baby, after fornicating with her repeatedly. I don’t even know why (the first part, not the second part). This movie in all its oddness just really kind of messed with my head.

Normally I write reviews about movies I feel at least strongly about one way or the other. I think I’m writing this one to see if there’s anybody out there with a strong opinion on this film. Seriously, what the fuck is with the random claymation?

— Sabbath


6 Responses to “Sabbath Reviews: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)”

  1. chainsawcheerleader Says:

    I didn’t like or hate The Life Aquatic. I only really watched it because it starred Bill Murray. The story is alright but the cast is amazing. They are always amazing. I love Bill Murray and William Dafoe. I also like Cate Blanchett. I don’t really like a lot of actresses but I like Blanchett. She’s different. There’s something about her and it is beyond being a good actress with class. Great review and I am glad to know I am not the only one that is bothered by Owen Wilson’s nose.

  2. Okay, let me set you heathens straight since Anderson is one of my favorite director. His films are not pretentious (baring that Hotel Chevalier bullshit.) There is nothing pretentious about his work. Quirky, yes. Arty, sure. But they’re honest in their weirdness. His film usually champion the misfit blazing their own paths and always deal with various familial issues of dysfunction. There’s always a certain amount of unbelievable or even slightly cartoonishelements to give things a slight detatchment from the real world, but never enough to make things seem like it’s a fantasy world. The films always straddle a strange line between broad comedy and moving drama. His films always inhabit this sort sweet storybook melancholy. I’ve always felt that his films play like Roald Dahl books for adults.
    Now, the problem with Wes Anderson, is that his films almost play like a series in that in order to fully get him, I think at least, you have to start with Rushmore and then watch his films in chronological order. Rushmore eases you into his style and motifes as his most commercial work and then slowly begins to pull back layers of what’s really lurking in his vision. He’s less accesable as he goes, at least until you hit the Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is the perfect marraige of source and director.
    The Life Aquatic may be my least favorite of his films. It grew on me, but it took a few viewings, where Rushmore and The Royal Tennebaums became two of my favorite movies right out of the gate. What I feel the problem with The Life Aquatic may be a surprise to those that don’t know, but it’s the first film he made that wasn’t co-written by Owen Wilson and the difference is obvious. They obviously balanced each other out and Wilson obviously provided the heart to his films. Anderson’s films became colder and more detached without Wilson involved.
    Try Rushmore and Tennenbaums and then see how you feel about the whole package. If you don’t like them, stay the hell away from The Darjeerling Limited. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a must see regardless of how you like the other films.

  3. chainsawcheerleader Says:

    I actually really liked The Royal Tennebaums. Of the films that Tick mentioned it is by far my favorite work from Anderson. While watching The Life Aquatic I knew what the underlying premise was I was just kind of bored with it. I have no actual feelings about the film but I am sure if I watched it a few more times I may come to some conclusion about it. When I watched The Royal Tennebaums I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Normally I try to stay away as far as possible when it comes to Ben Stiller.

  4. They’re on my list and eventually I’ll get around to them. Anderson might not be pretentious (it definitely is just a prejudice that I attach that term to his name), but he’s definitely a niche director. Like Tim Burton, they (correct me if I’m wrong) have a set style and audience and with Anderson I’m not sure if I fall into his audience. I think I was mostly surprised by how much I didn’t NOT like The Life Aquatic, but I’m still not sure if it has anything to do with him and the story or if it was just the fantastic cast. Eventually I’ll have to give Tennebaums a run just to tell people that I’ve seen it and to stop fucking asking me.

  5. I wouldn’t think that I would fall into Wes Anderson’s audience either…but I like…or love the films of his that I’ve seen. I loved this particular film. Everything just seemed to work for me. Tennenbaums is a classic. Haven’t seen Mr. Fox yet…I hate the fucking soundtrack though. The Anderson I can do without…with one exception…is Paul Thomas. Chew on that nerds.

  6. Jennifer Says:

    I was grateful for the claymation elements of this film. They communicated immediately that the movie was not going to be, in itself, about ocean life in a real way. It was always about the characters, which is something that Wes Anderson is really good at, and the claymation was a charming way of sidestepping a realistic and costly portrayal of ocean life. And who didn’t just love the Crayon ponyfish?

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