dir: Wes Anderson
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Whilst watching one of Anderson’s films, you really have to wonder who he thinks the audience is for the magic that he serves up. Tis clearly not a guy aiming to pack out the multiplexes and get Armageddon or Passion of the Christ’s Comeback Special-kind of ticket sales. I wonder if he even really cares about the audiences that watch his films, because thus far the only audience I can figure out that he aims his movies at is himself.
Which is a good thing, at least theoretically. So many movies are pumped out that are purely a product, a unit almost identical to the previous unit with slight variations to give the illusion of choice. It’s rare in the course of a given year to see a genuinely individual film: one that is recognisable as the work of a person with a singular vision. Of the six hundred or so films that are released each year, in the end it’s these ones that you remember the most, whether they’re good or bad.
This hardly means that people should sell their firstborns and their puppies to get the required fundage in order to be able to buy multiple tickets to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. I find it hard to believe that there could really be a lot of people out there that would find a film like this that enjoyable.
There’s quirkiness which is amusing and charming, original and then there’s quirkiness that distances an audience by provoking them to think, ‘That shit is just odd for the sake of being odd’. Wes Anderson doesn’t have the monopoly on ‘odd’ and ‘quirky’, but he’s pretty damn close. All four films that he’s directed have been overtly oddball experiences, distinct in themselves but hard to love. Bottle Rocket was odd but mildly diverting, Rushmore even more so. I have a great deal of affection for The Royal Tenenbaums, and have enjoyed it each time that I’ve lubed it up and slipped it into my slutty DVD player. But that doesn’t mean I’m blind to the deep, deep problems that his films possess (maybe they’re not ‘faults’, maybe they’re ‘features’).
Anderson creates an incredibly elaborate environment, with meticulous detail, and packs it with a large number of characters, but the characters tend to be easy to keep track of because they possess a specific uniform and generally one quirk that defines them.
With a seemingly different story (which is still the same one from The Royal Tenenbaums), he’s basically created a more elaborate version of the same idea. The Life Aquatic centres around a prick of a guy (Steve Zissou, played with fervour by Bill Murray) with a wide and numerous family of characters around him whom he bounces off more for the purposes of what passes for humour in Anderson’s world rather than the furthering of any plot.
Instead of the multi-story brownstone that housed (contained) the dysfunctional Tenenbaum family, much of the story takes place on the high seas, in the many rooms of Zissou’s ship the Belafonte. The title of the film refers to the documentaries made by Steve Zissou and his crew, who are meant to be the equivalents of the dearly departed doyen of the deep blue sea, Jacques Cousteau. Long may he reign (and with a watery but iron fist) in his new domain under the sea.
With that Wild Kingdom / National Geographic style of pseudo-doco making, the director and his people have also thrown in a bizarre array of elements: I didn’t pick it but a guy on the radio (Rob Jan on the Zero G show on 3RRR) kept mentioning Buckaroo Banzai for some reason. Surely there’s something from that Beatles LSD-inspired Yellow Submarine cartoon, there’s also some strange Portuguese (Seu Jorge) guy wandering the ship playing David Bowie covers in Portuguese, presumably. There’s a three legged dog, a pregnant reporter (Cate Blanchett), a pilot from Air Kentucky called Ned who may be Zissou’s son, and Klaus, a jealous German member of the crew who resents his presence (Willem Dafoe). Then there’s a rival wealthy gay ocean documentary maker whose ship is populated solely by Aryan rentboys (Jeff Goldblum); a group of nameless unpaid interns, Noah Fucking Taylor, pirates, a Sikh cameraman and probably twenty other characters and elements I forgot to mention. Oh, and Bud Cort, who’s famous mostly for being extremely ugly (due to a terrible car crash, or so they say), but also for being the lead in possibly the cultiest cult film of all time, Harold and Maude. I’m surprised they didn’t dig up Maude’s skeleton as well. With so many kitchen sinks in the flick you have to wonder what criteria they used to leave stuff out.
The plot pretends to be about Zissou’s pursuit of the elusive jaguar shark that killed his best friend, but it’ s really about the Steve Zissou character coming to terms with the concept of fatherhood. And the fact that he is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the modern era.
It’s chock full of nutty goodness, with an emphasis on the nuts. Some of the dialogue and several of the situations that come up are a bit amusing, as opposed to pants-rupturingly funny. In a first for a Wes Anderson film there are a few scenes of gratuitous bloody violence, one of which has Steve Zissou going berserk to the gentle strains of Iggy and the Stooges’ Search and Destroy. Then there are the plethora of other scenes where you just think to yourself ‘No actual humans talk like this. Not even crazy ones. Not even royals.’
You’re either going to appreciate that or hate the film for it. I watched the flick with my Beloved and it bored the pants off her, not literally, unfortunately. I knew she was bored because a) she has what we refer to as the ‘fifteen minute test’ ie. if it doesn’t grab her attention within the first 15, the later duration of the film doesn’t really have a chance at entrancing her, and b) she kept yawning all the time. I’m very perceptive, me.
But I didn't like it either. Films like this are a rare and unique experience for me. It’s not an outright comedy, and anyone going in thinking it’s going to electrify their underpants are going to be sorely disappointed. I got probably two laugh out loud moments for the duration, one of which not a single other soul in le cinema thought funny. If anyone’s wondering (and I sincerely doubt that could be the case), it’s a part where Steve yells ‘Don’t point the gun at him, he’s an unpaid intern!’ It still makes me smile now.
I really didn't enjoy Bill Murray’s performance as Steve Zissou. He was a self-centred prick, precious, vulnerable and at turns psychotic, but he was unbelievable (in an unbelievable film) if charming. He’s been in three of Wes Anderson’s flicks thus far, and in all the roles he’s done pretty good work. I only remotely believed his character’s plight, even if so much of the dialogue was written by a lunatic from an asylum deep in a Paraguayan jungle. Probably using bodily fluids to write on strips of cast-off skin.
Owen Wilson does okay as Ned, playing a more subdued character than usual. Singling out the dozens of people that play the thin ideas that pass for characters is fruitless and doesn’t give a good idea of whether it’s a decent night out at the movies. I very much doubt that there are a lot of people out there who could enjoy a flick like this. It’s too artificial, and too odd to the point where it’s constantly reminding people that they’re watching a construction, rather than allowing an audience to immerse themselves in a story, which is what people want, whether they’re pretentious wankers or hillbillies that a generation ago actually lost the evolutionary adaptation of opposable thumbs.
What would seem to be allowable in Anderson’s films wouldn’t be tolerated or venerated as much in other films. The flimsy characters with their individual quirks and complete lack of dimensions would be ridiculed elsewhere. But hey, maybe there’s something going on that people can appreciate otherwise. Apart from his own films, there’s not a single other film I can compare this to. That might mean that there is some uniqueness, some originality that Anderson can claim as his own in terms of bringing his vision to the screen. Something which you know is pretty rare. Wes Anderson fans might love it. Most other people might be punching themselves in the nuts or ovaries at the thought of going through it again.
There is a scene towards the end which I found genuinely moving, but I’m not sure whether it was the scene itself or the music used (a beautiful Sigur Ros song, if I’m not huffing from the wrong can of paint). Other than that I can honestly say this film is probably too clever for its own good, to an audience’s detriment. But I’m compelled to say that I almost liked it, because, goddamn, does that woman the movie studio sent over give great head.
Hold on, I’ll just go get you a towel.
6 schools of fluorescent snapper and rhinestone tuna you’ll never see out of 10
‘That pregnant slut is playing us like a cheap fiddle!’ – The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou