January 02, 2005

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Tally Me Bananas

posterThe Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Starring the crew of the Belafonte (et al.): Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, Bud Cort, Noah Taylor, Seu Jorge channelling David Bowie, Robyn Cohen, Waris Ahluwalia, Niels Koizumi, sound mixer Pawel Wdowczak as the sound mixer, Matthew Gray Gubler and assorted unpaid interns, the Walrus, the gardening Octopus, Flipper, a scene-stealing Orca, and Leica as Cody the three-legged dog.
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by: Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach
MPAA says: Rated R for language, some drug use, violence, and partial nudity. Only "some" drug use? They must have seen a different version.
Running time: 118 minutes
Release date: December 10, 2004
Seen at: National Amusements City Center 15, my second home. The concessions staff have successfully recovered from their New Year's Eve fog.

You had me at "Belafonte"
The sublime and the ridiculous meet and do a two-hour tango in this understated, nearly flawless film. Its deadpan humour and quiet slow-burns will not be for everyone, but I was in hysterics. Because, let's face it, the aphorism is true: the root of true comedy is pain. Life Aquatic is populated with improbable characters that one can absolutely believe are real, as their experiences deepen them from their lives of painful superficiality, and drag them from the phony world to reality and back again to a sense of luminous wonder.

Your thermometer for this review: I found writer/director Wes Anderson's 1998 film Rushmore so puerile and unfunnily smug, I kept my distance from 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums in spite of its good press (mostly because the good-press-givers also tended to praise Rushmore as if it were something more than an adolescent boy's view of the world pretending to be worldly wisdom). Now you know another one of my deep dark cinematic secrets. Ooo.

Work all night on a drink of rum
Bill Murray gives us Steve Zissou, captain of the Belafonte, a stoned, surreal version of Jacques Cousteau, barely competent and stuck in the past, with antiquated equipment and an antiquated outlook on reality. His documentaries—low on production values but high on chutzpah—are failing to win the acclaim he once garnered, particularly when the documentary reporting on the mysterious death of his longtime partner Esteban (eaten by a giant spotted shark) is dismissed as possibly fake (eaten by a giant spotted shark?).

Zissou is a man too crazy or jaded to be afraid when a fishy situation turns hairy. He occasionally sees the world above water in the same multicolour, glow-in-the-dark haze the underwater world has, which has not done his marriage any good. That, and his constant attempts at womanising. One such attempt appears to have resulted in a son, as Ned (Owen Wilson) arrives on the Belafonte to meet his long-lost father. Zissou isn't entirely certain he wants to be a father, but he issues Ned the requisite red knit cap and blue speedos and welcomes him to the team. With a precariously low budget and a precariously maintained ship, accompanied by their cynical dolphin recon team, they embark on a mission of revenge. They will find the shark that ate Esteban, and/or die trying. And, Zissou promises, he will not blow up a unique zoological specimen with the huge amount of dynamite he will be taking along, no, not at all.

We all live in a yellow submarineBeautiful bunch of ripe banana
There's not a bad performance in this eccentric bunch, including that from the frequently topless script girl played by Robyn Cohen (Owen Wilson is topless a bit too often, and it's not quite as bizarrely funny). Willem Dafoe's pom-pommed second-in-command Klaus reaches excruciating heights of insecurity. Anjelica Huston as Zissou's brainy wife Eleanor is severe and beautiful, but you suspect there's more than a little insanity packed away under the ivory-covered exterior. Seu Jorge spends his time on watch covering David Bowie songs in Portuguese and not paying particular attention to imminent dangers. Which is a bit better than Ned, who spends his time on watch in bed. Cate Blanchett is the spunky lady reporter covering the voyage, who may or may not be out to discredit Zissou and expose him as a delusional fraud, or at least as washed up. The Belafonte itself, sometimes seen in cutaway as the action flows from cabin to cabin belowdecks, expresses its disapproval over the entire ordeal by slowly falling apart. In contrast, Zissou's sleek, high-tech rival, Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), runs a tight ship, impeccably decorated with tight-bodied blond crewmen. The voyage, or, rather, the confusion, is well underway.

Day, me say day, me say day, me say day . . . You get the picture
A keyboard in the rickety shipboard laboratory reminded me of the incongruous detail of the watermelon in a vise in the laboratory in the film Buckaroo Banzai (1984). Although the mood of this movie is different—more mature, if you will—they share the same oddball, mock-serious, the world is not what it seems sensibility that John Lithgow in particular brought to the older film (which, incidentally, also featured Jeff Goldblum). Whereas Buckaroo Banzai often pointed right at its weirdness, Life Aquatic simply sets the world spinning in the background.

To See or Not To See
To give too many more details would be to spoil the unrolling of this strange episode in a strange man's strange life. In short: Highly recommended. My companion for the film wanted to turn right back around and see it a second time, to catch all the odd details and spend another two hours in Zissou's mind. The funniest, saddest movie I've seen in a long time.

Product placement included Campari on the rocks and RC Cola, but Zissou might have been hallucinating that one. Visit the website, where you can join the fan club and keep things surreal.

Sitting through the credits so you don't have to: It's hard to say where this film actually ends. Not until the last reel plays out the final frame, I would say. The credits eventually spin into a Buckaroo Banzai-style march and another guitar performance by Seu Jorge. Sit through it and let the entire movie wash over you.

Double feature picture show: See this, have a bottle of Campari, then see the Crocodile Hunter movie. No, really, trust me on this. But be sure to drink the Campari first.

Outside Food should have been Goldfish crackers (the snack that smiles back until you bite their heads off) and Swedish Fish candy and other food appropriate for the munchies, but I had a tummy ache brought on by wasabi cashews. Which may be suitably weird for this film.

Previews included Disney's Chicken Little (Signs meets War of the Worlds meets KFC); John C. Reilly in Dark Water, a soggy-looking translation of a Japanese horror movie by the author of The Ring; and White Noise, a movie promo that scares me senseless in a 30-second commercial in my living room, much less in an entire trailer in a darkened theatre.

Images © 2004 Touchstone Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Posted by OutsideFood at January 2, 2005 07:30 PM

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