Does This Seem Fake?
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is… different.
Critical consensus isn’t too happy with it, and I can’t say I am either. But it’s important to to understand why. Is this finally the point at which the ossificating effect of the director’s style gets the better of him? Well, kind of. But it’s far more complicated than a matter of “style over substance”. Especially when it comes to Wes Anderson for whom style and substance are fairly inextricable.
And if I have a theory about what’s going on, it’s a problematic one. First, it makes assumptions about people I don’t even slightly know and second, it calls into question the entire idea of this retrospective. It’s called the Wes Anderson Collection. And, for a while, we’ve pretended that pretty much everything in his films came from the man himself. All the text: sub, normal and super. And auteur theory, in its sillier forms, allows us to do that. But movies are a collaborative medium. And as recognizably Andersonian as The Life Aquatic may be, it is different. And I get the feeling a lot of that comes from this:
Now I’m not too familiar with Noah Baumbach. I’ve only seen two of his films, The Squid and the Whale and last year’s re-make of The Green Ray, Frances Ha. But his sensibility is pretty essential to The Life Aquatic. If Anderson is the camera, Baumbach is the lens. And if we are to afford Baumbach this courtesy, it’s only fair to extend it to Anderson’s previous screenwriting partner, Owen Wilson.
It’s difficult to isolate what the elder Wilson brought to the table, but Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums are a lot funnier than The Life Aquatic. Not just as a matter of personal taste, but in the sense that The Life Aquatic has fewer jokes. And even the joky bits are played more deadpan than before. If the post-suicide-attempt conversation between Chas and Richie was played dry, that’s nothing to the bit where Klaus is confused by Zissou’s awkward sentence structure:
Which is strange. Chas and Richie’s conversation is set in a very dramatic place but still comes off as funny. The Klaus bit is meant to be funny, but is played far straighter. So not only are the jokes less frequent, they’re categorically different from what came before. And, I must confess, it doesn’t strike me as all that funny. This bit with Jeff Goldblum and Cody the dog, in particular, comes off as just the wrong side of dark:
But humor in general is in rare supply. And I think this might make The Life Aquatic Anderson’s first drama. The Royal Tenenbaums’ driving impulse is a mix of comedy and drama but the lightness of its touch tilts the edifice towards the former. Even its darkest and most transcendent moments are leavened with some humor. If we assume that’s a contribution of the Anderson-Wilson dynamic, the Anderson-Baumbach one is defined by its interest in going darker, tonally and thematically. Tenebaums may have isolated moments of darkness, but The Life Aquatic takes a long, close look at the void.
The Life Aquatic’s central narrative is the slow degeneration of Steve Zissou. In some ways it’s similar to the character arc of Royal Tenenbaum. Both men fail to live up to a standard. But where Royal fails to bear the responsibilities of fatherhood, Steve fails on a bigger scale. He can’t live up to his image. Sometimes literally, like when Cate Blanchett’s reporter tells him about the poster she had on her wall:
“You mean the official photograph where I’m doing this?”
“That’s the one.”
“Well, maybe it’s just me but I don’t feel like that person. I never did.”
Then he tries to make a move on her. It’s pathetic and sad. And that’s just where Steve Zissou is right now. He tries to make it seem as if his fall hasn’t been too bad. But that’s not true and everyone knows it. Even, Klaus, Steve’s most loyal crewman, can’t help but look at one of his older documentaries and sigh “That’s what it used to be like.”
Steve’s story is inherently slow and static, probably the worst thing you can hand to Anderson as a director. His style is so particular and mannered that it has a tendency to deflate the energy of the proceedings. And when there’s not much air to deflate, that’s where we start to get into real trouble. It doesn’t help that this is also the narrowest of Anderson’s stories. It’s all about Steve. Rushmore, the closest comparison, is about Max but it takes the time to give Rosemary Cross and Herman Blume their own character arcs. Steve’s supporting cast doesn’t really get character arcs. The only ones I can think of are Klaus, Bill the bond company stooge and Nico the intern.
Each of those characters gets time to be themselves, apart from Steve. Sure, Klaus’s entire arc is about his jealousy of Ned, but it’s about him as much as it is about Steve. Ned and Jane are closer to thematic symbols and plot catalysts than people. Like the Tarantino guy says: “Just because you are a character doesn’t mean you have character.” And this narrowness makes the whole film seem small in a way Rushmore and Tenenbaums don’t.
This same idea leeches into the production design. The house at Archer Avenue is stuffed with background detail that speaks to its characters and their internal lives. Here’s the crew of the Belafonte:
Especially when you compare it to the glimpse we get of Jeff Goldblum’s monstrosity:
But it’s pretty different from the generous, democratic aspect of Anderson’s prior films. Secondary and tertiary characters often got little bits of character development here and there, not just in the script but also through the production design. The spaces each of the characters carved out for themselves spoke to their natures, such as Chas’s dynamo that rotated through the exact same tie or the way all the family games had been locked away in the cupboard by the stairs. But The Life Aquatic’s design can’t get away from Steve long enough to slip in all the distinctive bits of detail that flesh out Anderson’s other characters.
Which doesn’t mean I hate the production design. In fact it’s probably the one aspect of the film I consistently loved. I know a lot of people aren’t too happy with the boat cut-out but I find it fascinating. It’s a beautiful and imaginative little ecosystem. Sure, it makes the diorama comparison literal, but it’s a wonderful diorama. And I love the faux-Cousteau designs of the Deep Search submarine and Zissou’s documentaries. There’s also the hotel set which is too good not to use for a shoot out:
It’s a marvelous little world, teeming with creativity and adventure. But the movie’s not really interested in it. Case in point, they never end up using the hotel set for a shoot out, just the lead up to one. And that sense of unfulfilled promise haunts the whole thing. This is the kind of otherworldly beauty found in The Life Aquatic’s oceans:
and we’re stuck watching Bill Murray be a sad, self-pitying asshole. Which, to be fair, he does quite well.
But it’s Bill Murray playing stupefyingly sad, not stupefyingly sad and fun. For if there’s one big difference between him and Royal Tenenbaum it’s that Royal is a whirlwind force of energy where every bit Steve had drained slowly away. But we never see Steve at his best. We never see the inspiring figure he fails to live up to. We only see the thing he’s become. Maybe Anderson and Baumbach can fill in the details with their memories of Jacques Cousteau. But I can’t. And so I can never quite figure out how Steve will find his redemption or what I want him to do once he has.
Fittingly, the few moments of actual movement are the action scenes where Steve is most like his older self. I especially like the series of rapid cuts leading to Search and Destroy and his one-man recovery of the Belafonte:
It’s jagged and chaotic and really pumps up the movie when it could use some sizzle. But the movie can’t quite sustain it. The whole thing is quite depressing really. A bunch of promising parts assembled poorly into a motion picture that rarely moves. But at least it ends spectacularly:
The Jaguar Shark scene is the very last hand the movie has to play and this time it comes up with a winner, one that encapsulates every good aspect of the movie. Steve decides that after coming all this way he should take one look at the beast that killed his best friend. The entire crew joins him and together they set down on the bottom of the ocean and wait. Sigur Ros strikes up on the soundtrack and the Jaguar Shark whooshes by, a mammoth creature, wonderful and terrifying. It’s a moment of revelation. For Steve Zissou and all the members of his crew. And as Steve finally allows himself the full extent of his grief, the others reach out and give him comfort. And as Bill Murray’s measured performance finally comes to a head it becomes surprisingly moving. It can’t save the movie by any means, but it comes miraculously close. Especially once it’s combined with the jaunty Buckaroo Banzai exit set to Queen Bitch.
But it also shows why The Life Aquatic is, ultimately, a failure. The spark and emotional resonance of the ending is great. It’s also the only bit of the movie with both. Whatever happened behind the scenes or in the filmmakers’ heads, The Life Aquatic does not work. And it doesn’t work because it’s playing to the worst aspects of its director’s talents. It’s like the Seu Jorge covers of Bowie songs that fill the soundtrack. Lovely little things. They’re just not right for this story.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)