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Dustin Putman

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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
1 Star

Directed by Wes Anderson
Cast: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Noah Taylor, Bud Cort, Michael Gambon, Robyn Cohen, Seu Jorge, Waris Ahluwalia, Pawel Wdowczak, Matthew Gray Gubler, Seymour Cassel
2004 – 119 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language, some drug use, violence, and partial nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 8, 2004.

Following 1998's "Rushmore," my choice for the best film of that year, dryly comedic filmmaker Wes Anderson has been in an alarming state of free-fall. Whereas most directors, with experience, become better directors, Anderson has fallen victim to the opposite occurrence, his every film since that 1998 cult classic a step down from the last. 2001's "The Royal Tenenbaums" was a vastly disappointing follow-up, its style overtaking the much-needed human element in a story about a dysfunctional family of geniuses. Now comes "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," which enlists many Anderson regulars—Bill Murray (2003's "Lost in Translation"), Owen Wilson (2004's "Starsky & Hutch"), and Anjelica Huston (2003's "Daddy Day Care") among them—for a thoroughly unfunny, dead-end comedy that goes nowhere for a patience-testing 119 minutes.

The plot, what there is of it, is outlandish for the sole sake of being outlandish. It is also interesting to note that the title character's woes could stand in for Anderson's own. In recent years, the films of wildlife documentarian Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) have been poorly received disasters, his last cinematic failure particularly difficult for him because his best friend, Estuban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel), was eaten by a Jaguar Shark during its making. Vowing to find the murderous sea creature and documenting it for a new feature, Steve and a ragtag film crew, including emotionless wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), pregnant journalist Jane (Cate Blanchett), right-hand man Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), and Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson)—a captain who may or may not be Steve's estranged son—set out on the open seas. What begins as merely an act of vengeance, however, becomes something of a soul-searching odyssey for Steve, as he connects with Ned and begins to reevaluate his life's filmmaking ambitions. Or something like that.

Written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" is a too-cute, emotionally distant bore whose very point for existing gets lost in endless scenes where characters sit around and talk to each other without saying much of consequence. Occasionally, Anderson tries to spice things up with contrived developments, such as a pirate invasion and a kidnapping, the raw violence within these moments uncomfortably surrounded by nutty comedy and flat one-liners. For the most part, though, the characters—and actors—are lead adrift in search of a purpose for their involvement, which they do not find. Never is there a connection with these people, most of whom are unpleasant to be around, and so the picture quickly become a mishmash of barely evident ideas and empty scene-filler.

Ever since "Rushmore," Bill Murray's film career has taken a deeper, revitalizing path. His continued solid work as Steve Zissou does not pay off as much this time because the script fails to support him. The evidence onscreen shows that Steve Zissou is a terrible filmmaker, the Ed Wood of documentaries, which leads one to wonder how he ever found success in the first place. Furthermore, for a documentarian of wildlife, he shows almost no respect for any kind of animal except his cats. In one scene, meant to be funny but inconsistent for his character, a colorful, exotic lizard crawls demurely onto his hand, which Steve promptly flicks off with his finger.

Possibly the best thing about Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator," the forgettable performance from Cate Blanchett here proves that even the most talented of actors are at a loss when the material gives them little to work with. As journalist Jane, who is writing a cover story on Steve, Blanchett looks bored. As Ned Plimpton, a go-with-the-flow kind of guy who abruptly walks into Steve's life with the suspicion that he may be his son, Owen Wilson is saddled with an equally uninteresting role. Willem Dafoe (2004's "The Clearing") and Jeff Goldblum (2002's "Igby Goes Down"), as Eleanor's meddlesome ex-husband, Alistair Hennessey, are wasted. Only Anjelica Huston's deliciously deadpan turn as Eleanor equates to having actual fun.

Without anything perceptive to say about families, fading glory, or filmmaking, and with the amount of earned laughs to be had counted on one hand, "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" is a curiously cold experience and a monumental waste of time. Writer-director Wes Anderson's very precise stylistic flourishes and camera movements, such as his love for zooming and slow-motion, remain on-hand, but his reluctance to try anything new and different has finally grown stale. Sparse stop-motion animation by Henry Selick (2001's "Monkeybone"), used to bring the sea creatures to jerky life, simply doesn't cut it.

Always one to be counted on for incorporating a superbly complimentary, quirky soundtrack, Anderson cannot even pull that off this time. The majority of the songs, sang by a Portuguese-speaking, guitar-playing deck-hand with a penchant for David Bowie tunes, proves that Bowie's music works best in English. In Portuguese, and in the manner in which they are pushed awkwardly into scenes, the songs are too gimmicky by a half and lose all of their effectiveness.

It is a sad, yet telling, day, indeed, when "Napoleon Dynamite," which the director had no involvement with, is a spectacularly more successful, funny, creative, and humane Wes Anderson-style movie than Anderson's own 2004 work is. When "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" finally comes to a close, the viewer is left perplexed, as if they have been in a coma for two hours and are just now coming to, desperately wanting their lost time back. This is one dreary, listless film, easily Wes Anderson's worst, to date. The sooner it is forgotten and the once-promising director restakes his claim in being someone to watch, the better off we all will be.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman