***½/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras A+
starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston
screenplay by Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach
directed by Wes Anderson
by Walter Chaw His idiosyncrasies are by now familiar, but it still takes more than one viewing to assimilate Wes Anderson's quirk with the undercurrent of wisdom and emotionality that makes it sing. The excavation of the relationships between brothers that ultimately explains the longevity of his light debut Bottle Rocket, the exploration of loneliness and the connection between mentors and boys that buoys Rushmore, and, most affectingly, the rough bond between fathers and sons in The Royal Tenenbaums edify Anderson's work like the unexpected pockets of tenderness in the Coen Brothers' early stuff, or those flashes of intricacy that transform John Cassavetes's vérité chuff into masterworks. With The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson goes back to what's familiar in his studiedly unfamiliar way: to mentors and boys, to fathers and sons, and to brothers incidentally if not in fact--casting them all adrift in a hermetic universe that is as influenced by Sixties lounge kitsch as it is by post-modern dissociative cool. And in retracing his steps, he manages to recreate a lot of the same surprising humanity of his first three films, but I do wonder about The Life Aquatic's lasting resonance.
Undone in the end by its ambition and our awareness of Anderson's themes, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is wonderful nonetheless. Technically, it's above reproach, acted with joy and rigor and edited with real genius. (Anderson's gift is in the editing bay--the way that he cuts dialogue, employs soundtrack, and affects matching shots rivals Quentin Tarantino.) But its best description may be that it allies itself to Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can, Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers, Alexander Payne's Sideways, Michael Mann's Collateral, and Martin Scorsese's The Aviator as works of genuine auteurs that are more perfect encapsulations of leitmotif than they are unique unto themselves. Even more than those other pictures, perhaps, Anderson's feels a little forced--the moment of grace, when it comes, is almost immediately engulfed by exchanges that seem too obviously declarations of thematic intent. The pulse and sensibilities of his pictures are so imbricated at this point that there are actually moments where missing beats are noted with alarm and irritation. (A bit of business with a three-legged dog not returning after Steve and Ned are washed ashore on a desert island, for instance, feels like a glaring omission.) There's a compliment embedded in the criticism that Anderson has gotten so good over the course of just four films, he's become a cliché.
Which is not to say that he doesn't try to break new ground. He returns to some of the muted action of Bottle Rocket in a pair of deadpan shootouts between Steve and a band of ruthless Filipino pirates, pacing them with the same kind of sprung toddling that marks time in his long dialogue scenes. The problem isn't that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is startlingly bloody, but that in scenes like the wounding of one of Steve's pointedly unpaid interns, Anderson waffles. He breaks his frames with sharp cutaways, and his mise-en-scène, defined by the affectedness of portraiture, can't suffer it. Anderson looks away when he should observe archly, and that little dishonesty begins to undermine the cultured dishonesty that is his stock and trade. Yet the choice to make the film more visceral is complicated once it pays off. Anderson foams the ocean with crimson in bookend scenes, going so far as to coyly streak the fourth wall in a reminder that for as detached as the characters are from one another, we remain as the audience the most distanced and manipulated participant.
Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is a deep-sea explorer who documents his exploits in a series of off-the-cuff documentaries that have found him fame and, of late, the same sort of criticism that could conceivably be applied to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. His stuff is getting a little tired, the old iron doesn't seem as hot anymore even as the picture begins with Steve's long-time partner (played by Cassavetes fave Seymour Cassel as something like a brother to Zissou) being eaten by an unseen Jaguar Shark, which leads our intrepid Cousteau on an Ahab-ian journey of vengeance that's burdened by the mendacity of finding an above-the-line producer for his quest. It follows these two strands for the entire film, the idea of a quest for the self in the pursuit of the implacable natural and the idea of the artificiality of film and filmmaking as a catalyst for this existential self-awareness. ("Why'd you stop shooting? That was a tearjerker!") Steve's crew includes tortured German Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), whose childish adoration of his captain posits him as the constant son in conflict with the prodigal, Ned (Owen Wilson), a bastard who shows up a month after his mother's death to get to know the man he suspects is his dad. Journalist Jane (Cate Blanchett, still doing Kate Hepburn from her turn in The Aviator) is onboard to give Steve the first meaningful coverage he's had in ages, while wife Eleanor Zissou (Anjelica Huston), the rumoured brains behind the Zissous, begins to contemplate starting over with first husband--and Zissou archrival--Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum).
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, in keeping with its documentary title, is perhaps best read as a film obsessed with recordings on tape or on paper. It fits in with this year's glut of pictures about memory in that way, unravelling the truth behind Steve's knowledge of Ned's birth in conversations--probably equally spaced--throughout the film. There's a lot of talk of capturing, photographing, remembering through the filter of media. The purpose of Jane (and, in a great moment, her tape recorder) seems to be to inspire fits of fabrication and convulsions of candour--she's pregnant with her editor's child, quick to cry, and given a gift of dozens of self-addressed stamped envelopes with which to correspond with a lover. Her journal moves the action at one point; one of her letters discovered beneath someone's door does the same thing again later on. Then there're the films themselves, debuted at a fictional film festival to the scorn or adulation of a fictional festival crowd (but no more fictional than a real festival crowd). A flag designed by Ned serves through its stick-figure symbolism to resolve Klaus's tortured relationship with his "father" (Steve) and "brother" (Ned)--even as a missive that Steve unearths for Ned serves to reconcile Steve's own ambivalence with his late-life fatherhood. Truth, illusion, fiction, documentary: The picture has a tiger (or a Jaguar Shark) by its tail in choosing to discuss the ways we manufacture memories to craft our realities.
Bill Murray is fantastic, likewise Wilson, Blanchett, and Goldblum. (The latter of whom we just don't see enough of, here or elsewhere.) The film, though, belongs to the great Willem Dafoe's amazing pain and to Brazilian actor Seu Jorge (City of God's Knockout Ned) as the good ship Belafonte's troubadour, who offers stirring, haunted acoustic renditions of David Bowie songs in Portuguese as counterpoint and comment to the events unfolding. His music is the spine of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and the heart, too, locating that pregnant moment in time when "Ziggy Stardust" made a lot of sense as an anthem for passionate disaffection, dancing around understanding and being misunderstood and losing and finding your soul. When the film works, it works because Anderson finds his pulse in the issues that matter to him--and when it doesn't, it stumbles because Anderson betrays a fear that what he's been saying for four films now is suddenly harder to understand. A work about conflict, it is itself conflicted, torn between the confidence of a gifted filmmaker and the insecurity of a gifted writer, between forcing what comes easily and making too much of what doesn't. It would appear to describe Steve Zissou, and it might describe Wes Anderson, too. Here's hoping that Anderson cuts the rope tying him to his own white whale before the next go-round.
by Bill Chambers In cooperation with Buena Vista, The Criterion Collection presents The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou on DVD in a 2-disc* package that's truly the finest they've put together yet for a Wes Anderson joint. The 2.33:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is breathtaking but for the occasional presence of dark blue in areas of the image that should be pitch black. Saturation is brilliant, almost blindingly so, an effect that, like a sudden shift from cool to warm colours during the pirate attack, is definitely intentional. Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 soundtracks grace the platter, both of them rendering a loud and detailed but not especially discrete mix with comparable clarity, though I prefer the DTS audio for the extra punch it gives the action beats of the picture.
The third and final listening option is a film-length commentary featuring Anderson and Noah Baumbach; chiming in from Bar Pitti, the Manhattan eatery where they wrote the screenplay for The Life Aquatic, the two are frequently muffled by ambient noise but an index of topics helps pick up the slack. Truth be told, there are no major revelations, anyway, although there may have been before Criterion or Buena Vista decided to bleep the title of the film Anderson credits as the inspiration for the Zissou short that opens The Life Aquatic. Along the way we learn they solicited Wallace Shawn for screenwriting advice and deliberately stole the ending from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. (Heavier topics like fathers and sons are sadly dropped like hot potatoes whenever broached.) Nine deleted scenes--technically scene extensions--running 5 minutes as a block are neither here nor there even if they shed light on footage heretofore glimpsed only in The Life Aquatic's trailer, while a "Starz on the Set" making-of (15 mins.) serves as a glorified teaser for the contents of Disc Two. Said trailer closes out the first platter.
An immense gallery of behind-the-scenes photos by Philippe Antonello and Polaroid snapshots by Wes Anderson. Robyn Cohen's adorable cast portrait single-handedly justifies a diving-masks motif.
Seu Jorge Performs David Bowie (40 mins.)
Seu "Pelé" Jorge's unabridged, ganja-fuelled performances of "Starman," "Oh! You Pretty Things," "Changes," "Rebel Rebel," "Lady Stardust," "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide," "Five Years," "Life on Mars," "Suffragette City," and "Quicksand." That's right: no "Space Oddity." And here I thought Criterion had a reputation for comprehensiveness.
The Look Aquatic (6 mins.)
Production designer Mark Friedberg offers that the biggest challenge of The Life of Aquatic was conveying a sense of the cosmopolitan without traveling farther than Rome and Naples. This is the featurette in which it's confirmed that the interior of the Belafonte really was the world's largest ant farm.
Aquatic Life (8 mins.)
Surprisingly, this is the only time the spotlight shines on Henry Selick's stop-motion creatures, but the participants make the most of it. Wes Anderson's instincts are observably acute as he proposes minor alterations to the "telescoping fish" and selects a paisley pattern for the complexion of a "research turtle," while various F/X types show off the MacGyverian feats of engineering that are the film's representations of marine life. For what it's worth, Selick looks a lot like an older, scrawnier Anderson.
A brief gallery of the portraits, logos ("Air Kentucky"), et al designed to lend history and verisimilitude to the sets and costumes.
Creating a Scene (4 mins.)
Anderson explains as if delivering a pre-emptive apology that he never apprenticed other directors and therefore never learned to do things the "right" way. This segues into the filming of Jeff Goldblum and Bill Murray's first encounter, with the likes of Goldblum and Anjelica Huston contributing parenthetical testimonials.
Esteban (7 mins.)
Seymour Cassel has more screentime here than he does in The Life Aquatic proper. "Wes Anderson killed me. But what a way to die, huh?" Cassel asks rhetorically upon wrapping his scenes in the underwater tank, a strangely melancholic capper to a piece that begins with the Anderson vet telling a cigar dealer about his former collaborator, the late, great John Cassavetes.
Ned (3 mins.)
Owen Wilson insists that affecting courtliness was difficult in and of itself, regardless of the fact that he didn't conceive Ned from the ground up as he had his previous characters for Anderson.
Mark Mothersbaugh (19 mins.)
A red Devo hat sits discreetly on a tabletop in Mark Mothersbaugh's recording studio, where the former Devo frontman composed and conducted the score for all four of Anderson's films. (The place has become such a temple to Mothersbaugh and Anderson that on The Life Aquatic, instead of booking space for an orchestra, they pieced together a score by recording two instruments at a time in "the little room.") Mothersbaugh touches on several fascinating points, e.g. that he literally turned cues from The Royal Tenenbaums upside-down to create themes for The Life Aquatic! That little tidbit alone will have auteurists foaming at the mouth.
"This Is An Adventure" (51 mins.)
Co-directors Albert Maysles (yep), Antonio Ferrera, and Matthew Prinzing take the fly-on-the-wall approach to documenting the production, with Murray's process the informal the thrust of the piece. Starting with a toupee fitting at which Murray's wit is lost on Cinecittà's craftspeople (he wonders if his blonde wig is too "Are you a member?"), this is a privileged window into a notoriously private personality who genuinely seems to consider himself not the star but just another crewmember. Revealing glimpses of Anderson ordering DP Robert Yeoman to shoot something "documentary-style" and listening to a take instead of watching it meanwhile suggest that the director is less fastidious than people think.
Costumes (5 mins.)
Costume designer Milena Canonero (The Shining) is absent for her own hagiography, by the end of which dyed-in-the-wool counterculturalist Bud Cort has admitted that he found his "polyester shroud" of a wardrobe suspect until he realized that Anderson wasn't trying to pigeonhole Cort's bond-company stooge.
"Mondo Monda" (16 mins.)
Is this for real? Anderson and Baumbach are the uncomfortable guests on this decidedly retro cinecentric talk show hosted by Antonio Monda, the festival moderator at the beginning of The Life Aquatic. Like a nightmarish combination of André Bazin and Jiminy Glick, Monda follows a line of inquiry ranging from a word association game played with filmmakers' names to "Tell me about pirates." Though the language barrier makes for some Hawksian exchanges (Monda: "How can this personal film change the world?" Anderson: "Well, it probably can't." Baumbach: "We've succeeded in that sense"), the real highlight of this segment is the embedded notion that while Italian film culture may not have evolved much since the 1970s, American film culture, for better or worse, has: Anderson's surely one of today's most esoteric filmmakers, but he's stumped by Monda's unfashionable desire to discuss the political ramifications of his work.
"Intern Video Journal" (15 mins.)
Before landing the role of the unlucky intern who takes a machete in the shoulder, Matthew Gray Gubler was one of Anderson's real-life interns, and his on-set video diary has intimacy to make up for its by-now tedious subject matter. (I get it, already: The Life Aquatic was like summer camp. Bonus points, however, for paying attention to the previously-ignored Noah Taylor.)
Jane (3 mins.)
The presumed debut of Cate Blanchett's shopworn anecdote about learning she was with child soon after being sculpted for a pregnancy prosthetic. Anderson reflects fondly on her preparedness, saying that's not something he's used to with Murray and Wilson.
Two easy-to-spot Easter eggs round out the second platter. A foldout case insert contains an introspective dialogue between Anderson and brother Eric Chase Anderson, whose childlike watercolours grace the jacket and menu art. A cardboard sleeve slips over the swingtray keepcase. Originally published: May 9, 2005.
*Criterion is simultaneously releasing Disc 1 of The Life Aquatic as a standalone title.