The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Director    Wes Anderson
Starring    Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett
4 stars

27th February 2005

Look up the word 'quirky' in your dictionary and chances are, there will be a nice little picture of Wes Anderson staring back at you, in his quirky glasses and with his quirky hair. It's probably not a label the guy will be happy with - it's one step away from being called weird - but with movies like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums on his CV, it's quite an apt description of his output thus far. The Life Aquatic doesn't look like rocking the boat just yet - it's perhaps Anderson's most mainstream picture yet, but the elements that make his films so unique and enjoyable remain intact.

Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is an ageing oceanographer and filmmaker in the mould of Jacques Cousteau, who, along with his crew, sets out to avenge the death of his best friend by hunting down and killing a mythical 'Jaguar Shark'. The scientific purpose? Revenge. More pressing reasons? To get Zissou's career back on track, to go on one last adventure and to inadvertently become acquainted with a man who may or may not be his son, Ned (a magnificent Owen Wilson). Along for the ride are reporter Jane (Cate Blanchett) who's writing a big story on her idol Zissou ("it's the effing cover!"), Steve's estranged wife Eleanor (Angelica Huston) and the bespectacled bail bonds banker, Bill (Bud Cort), who's onboard to make sure Team Zissou don't go over budget, but ends up helping the crew steal equipment from a rival research station.

As far as ensemble casts go, Anderson has pretty much come up tops. Murray, the Godlike genius that he is, is on superb form playing the world-weary Zissou, a man who's slowly starting to recognise he's on the slippery slope down and who's desperate to find some meaning in his life, all the while trying to stop acting like 'a showboat, and a little bit of a prick'. It's obvious the role was tailor made for Murray and he wears it as snugly as Zissou wears his skintight wetsuit - the red bobble hat and turquoise uniform setting off one of the most iconic characters of his distinguished career. Acerbic, asinine and, for the most part, an absolute asshole, Steve Zissou is instantly unforgettable - how can you not fall in love with a man who attempts to kiss a pregnant reporter he just met, then immediately lights up a cigarette after scolding her for drinking with a bun in the oven?

Meanwhile, below deck there are some truly excellent supporting characters, including a career best turn from Willem Defoe as the childlike crewmember Klaus (his early encounter with Owen Wilson is a perfect example of how not to appear threatening in any way). Everywhere you look there's talent on board - Huston is brilliantly demure as usual, Blanchett is superb in an essentially redundant role, Jeff Goldblum excels as Zissou's rival Alistair Hennessey - only the brilliant Noah Taylor is refused a worthy part.

While it certainly takes a while to set sail (gee, aren't nautical jokes funny), The Life Aquatic really hits its stride in the second half when the relationships between Steve and Ned and Ned and Jane begin to develop. However, just when you think Anderson has relented and transplanted a bog-standard romance into one of his flicks, the film pulls an about turn and sails into previously uncharted waters. With a faintly preposterous feel to it - the pirate invasion, kidnapping and subsequent rescue operation scenes are all absolutely classic - The Life Aquatic doesn't quite stray into fantasy but has a definite goofy quality, like all fun movies should, really. Even the hand-animated sea creatures aren't as horribly twee as they could have been, and the marvellous eclectic soundtrack (including some strangely hypnotic synth melodies) is just what you'd expect from a man of taste like Anderson.

At times laugh-out-loud funny, and often equally touching (the ending is both unexpected and expertly handled), The Life Aquatic is certainly not going to help Wes Anderson shake that 'quirky' tag but it's definitely one of the smartest comedies you'll see this year. In fact, it's a damn shame when the credits roll and Team Zissou set sail once more without us on board to document their adventures. Even it if fails to light up the cinema, at the very least, The Life Aquatic might see a return for all-in-one turquoise body suits on the high street, and that can only be a good thing for everybody.

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