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"The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"

Directed by Wes Anderson.
Written by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach.
Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe and Anjelica Huston.
Release Year:  2004
Review Date:  12/30/04


My buddy Mike "Yac" Iacovone simply LOVES Wes Anderson's movies.  He loved "Bottle Rocket", he loved "Rushmore" and he loved "The Royal Tenenbaums."  He loves Anderson's films so much that he made a special trip up to New York City to see Anderson's latest one, "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"...and he came back with an uh-oh.

"Well, I liked 'The Life Aquatic' the least of the four that Anderson's made," started Yac.  "It was good, just not as good as his other ones."

Now, this was an uh-oh mostly because I haven't loved Anderson's films.  I liked "Rushmore" a lot; a funny movie, thanks to Bill Murray and to a fantastic story; one-trick pony Jason Schwartzman was perfect in "Rushmore" and for whatever reason, the whole thing worked for me.  But, I thought that "Bottle Rocket" was only so-so, and the same goes for "The Royal Tenenbaums", although I will admit that the first hour of "Tenenbaums" could have won the Oscar if they had an award for Best First Half of a Motion Picture, it was so damned funny.  So, hearing that Yac--who is nearly in love with Anderson's work--was even slightly disappointed by "The Life Aquatic" meant that I was in for big trouble.

Murray, in his third Anderson film, plays Steve Zissou, world-renowned oceanographer and aquatic icon, a man that has been doing his work for almost 30 years but in the last few years has been fading from the limelight after his documentary film career started to decline.  In his latest work, he details the loss of his best friend (Seymour Cassel), who was eaten by the mysterious Tiger Shark.  The experience--which occurred during a routine exploration--so rattles Zissou that he decides to make his next assignment a suicide mission, to find and kill the shark that ate his best friend.  He takes along his normal crew, plus his only-because-it's-still-in-writing wife (Anjelica Huston) and a man that claims to be Zissou's son through another woman, Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a Midwestern airline pilot that appears at Zissou's latest film opening.

You know that "The Life Aquatic" is going to be a little kooky from the get-go; Anderson has been good about this in his other films, so this one is no different.  The film is only occasionally about Zissou's quest to find and kill the shark; it's mostly about the relationship between Zissou and Plimpton, as well as Zissou's tenuous relationships with everyone else in his life, from his stated rival--and his wife's ex-husband--Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) to working with a crew that is blindly loyal to his interests to his wife.  Almost selfishly, I was more into the shark hunt thing, so I got bored sometimes in the callous Zissou's attempts to learn about a son he didn't think he had.  But then, you get a couple of extended shootouts between Zissou and Asian pirates (who hilariously wield automatic weapons and/or VERY fake-looking swords) that don't seem to have a place in any Wes Anderson film, let alone one that is about a freakin' oceanographer!  Add in about a half-dozen scenes where we get to hear one of the characters, Pelé (Seu Jorge), sing David Bowie songs in Portuguese (???) and you get one hell of a potpourri in this movie.

Now, I'm normally cool with this--IF any of these genres works or adds something to the other parts of a film.  But, I didn't think that anything about "The Life Aquatic" was that solid, so you get a kibbles-and-bits approach that kind of distracts from everything the movie tries.  There's some decent drama, there's a couple of laughs, there's Willem Dafoe, there's the surprisingly-vivid static shots of characters sitting around.  But nothing about it feels invigorating, or unique, or special, or anything that characterizes moments from "Rushmore" and scenes from the first 60 minutes of "The Royal Tenenbaums" that make everyone talk about Wes Anderson like he's the second coming of Scorsese.

So, like "Bottle Rocket" and "The Royal Tenenbaums", I was middle of the road on "The Life Aquatic."  Maybe one day I'll see a Wes Anderson film and be blown away by it, but that day was not today.

Rating:  Matinee


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
© 1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09