The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

For a man who has come to embody the word "quirky," Wes Anderson may have stepped a bit too far off the deep end with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Over the course of three films, Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson has amassed a rabid following because of his unique movies full of oddball characters, droll dialogue, and quirky humor. Each film has done better than the last, and hopes were high for The Life Aquatic, a sort of homage to Jacques Cousteau, but things may be a little too strange, even for Anderson's standards. The film feels like he spent too much time trying to inject loopy humor into as many places as possible, and forgot to worry about things like plotting and characterization.

The film revolves around Team Zissou, a crew of oceanographers/documentary filmmakers led by Steve Zissou (Bill Murray, Garfield, Coffee and Cigarettes). The past decade has not been kind to Zissou, as his documentaries have waned in popularity. While filming his last documentary, his longtime friend was eaten by what Zissou dubbed the 'jaguar shark.' His new mission is to hunt down and eradicate it, for the scientific purpose of 'revenge.' Joining him is reporter Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett, The Aviator, The Return of the King), who is doing a profile on him, and Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson, Meet the Fockers, Around the World in 80 Days), a pilot who may or may not be Zissou's son. The crew also includes Zissou's wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston, Kaena: The Prophecy, Daddy Day Care), a jealous German (Willem Dafoe, The Aviator, Spider-Man 2), a guy who sings David Bowie songs in Portuguese (Seu George, City of God), and a host of other wackos, who, unfortunately, do not get much screen time.

Anderson co-wrote the screenplay with Noah Baumbach (Highball, Mr. Jealousy), and there may possibly be too many characters. Other characters include Eleanor's ex-husband, and Zissou's archrival Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum, Incident at Loch Ness, Igby Goes Down) and Zissou's main businessman (Michael Gambon, Being Julia, Sky Captain). Many of these characters exist to be punch lines in a few jokes. It's a shame, because they are all potentially rich sources of weirdness, but there is not enough time to explore any of them. If all of the minor characters had a little more substance to them, it would fill the movie with quirkiness at every level, but mostly it's just small things like George strumming the guitar or crewmember who frequently goes around topless (Robyn Cohen). The main plot centers on Zissou and Plimpton. Along the way to hunt for the jaguar shark, Zissou and crew must deal with a lack of funds, pirates, and an island raid. Everything seems so random and disjointed. Yes, this may be to represent the current state of Zissou's life, but people watching are reduced to waiting until the script serves up the next one-liner.

Zissou's declining popularity has made him surly. His love of exploration is gone, replaced by a need for ratings, and this is causing discord among some of his crew. It's a role that only somebody like Murray could take. He supplies evokes equal amounts of sympathy and annoyance. People want to slap him, but at the same time, they look up to him. The same goes for the film as a whole. One really wants to like the movie, but it never quite makes it to that point. The one thing that Anderson does that works is the look of the film. He used stop-motion animation to bring to life many of the bizarre sea creatures that Zissou comes in contact with. They are bright, colorful, and fake looking, but it does bring a unique sense of life to The Life Aquatic. It looks like most of Anderson's imagination went into coming up with amusing names for these creatures and in building the interior set of Zissou's ship, the Belafonte, and impressively cramped three-level set. Weirder yet is the fact that the camera sometimes pans a little too far back, allowing anybody watching the film to see that yes, this is obviously a set. Did he do this on purpose? With Anderson, who knows?

Mongoose Rates It: Okay.
1 hour, 58 minutes, Rated R for language, some drug use, and partial nudity.

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