I Saw a Film!
I’m breaking with my usual behavior of ranting and raving only about older films and films kind of resigned to teenage, blue eyeshadow, campground BBQ sauce mess heaps–the stuff of drive-ins (which right now should be enjoying a Covid come-back) and forgotten creature double-features to talk a bit about one of my all time favorites, no surprise by the picayune Wes Anderson (he of twee details and the unlikeliest of adventures you’ll love to believe in) and starring perennial favorite Bill Murray as the titular character in perhaps his most expansive role. It’s not lacking for supporting actors here either, Anderson favorite Angelica Houston as well as Owen Wilson and Willem Dafoe all make excellent appearances in roles you’ll never forget.
The film, a spoof of the Cousteau Society and the many films they produced in our youth (the 70s especially) brilliantly melds the science, the tech, and the necessity of producers interest into a package that Murray’s Zissou has to chase, coerce and basically manipulate with lies and charms so that he can continue doing what he loves to do, which is bringing undersea life and adventure to the screen for a fantasy world that still seems to give a shit about Earth science and such naturalist adventures. The problem is Zissou is tired. He’s suffering from both loss, frustration, and plain old burn-out on the process.
To make matters worse, Zissou is a bit washed up. He’s been somewhat superseded by Jeff Goldblum’s Hennessey character who manages, as we are told, to command the grant money and overshadow the Zissou Society’s efforts. We enter the story at a particularly dark moment. Steve Zissou has lost his best friend and mentor in a terrible accident with a rare and magnificent shark. Zissou, a bit unhinged, has decided to pursue the fish as a sort of last project of revenge. However, so much happens in this movie that it’s nearly impossible to squash it all into a coherent synopsis. It’s full of surprises, quirky personality disputes, rediscovered offspring, trials and tribulations of no longer being a star, there is mourning, reconciling with past love, revenge, losing status in a community, and a plethora of imaginative sea creatures optimistically tossed into the magical water realms which are designed and serve to remind us that the film is a wickedly funny fantasy.
It’s the sort of film I know I couldn’t make. When I look at movies, I know I could make many of them. I know I could have made Pretty In Pink, I am sure I could have made Lady Frankenstein (I feel like I could have made it even sexier), I know I could have written and scrapped Hello Down There, but Anderson’s movies are much more complicated and have too many amazingly satisfying moving parts to just produce dallying about. When Zissou, to the music of Iggy Pop, surprises the pirates who have attacked his vessel and turns the tides of the battle, your heart pounds for him. Is it unrealistic? Sure, but the damned thing works like a charm and you go along because Anderson also puts believable and outlandish “you can’t make this shit up” reality into the mix. When the pirates kidnap Bud Cort because it turns out he can speak some Tagolog, it’s a believable detail, and as Zissou empties his Glock as the pirate boat flees, you laugh out loud when he turns and says he’s never seen a bond company stooge stick his neck out like that. At the same time he makes you cringe as he clumsily hits on the gorgeous and pregnant reporter embedded to do a story about Zissou, played by Kate Blanchett in one of her more delicious, though at times slightly distracted roles. It brings home the fact that each one of us can be both heroic and disappointing, but hopefully working toward a more impressive goal.
This magnificent film is Wes Anderson’s best, in my opinion, but it is akin to other products of his including the really enjoyable Grand Budapest Hotel which has many similar but more violent fantasy elements. I can’t recommend his movies enough, they are all full of ingenious hilarity and unexpected prizes.
You can catch most of his films on Prime though a few will cost you a bit, but they’re worth it, there’s more going on in five minutes of a typical Anderson yarn than you get in whole movies by other directors. Plus you get a charming Mark Mothersbaugh soundtrack including a few iconic Devo tunes.
3 thoughts on “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)”
Agree, I think this is Amderson’s best, and has a surreal, off-kilter energy that I love! Worth deviating from type to review this one!
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There’s a way of identifying with Zissou in this movie that is like no other film. We both love him and cringe (and laugh safely from a distance) at his callousness, but it represents that character that manages to accomplish tasks and produce enviable artistry even with his team often acting to fix his impulsiveness. We’ve all been in that sort of mix of petulance and genius at times. Hopefully we get a little more genius than petulance! :p
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And I think Zizzou is what gives this film heart in a way that some Anderson films lack. And that shock death at the end reasserts the film’s sense of gravity and loss after plenty of comedy fun. Great movie and review!
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