Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is an oceanographer and documentary filmmaker who, during the creation of his latest picture, lost his best friend, who was eaten by a giant shark. At least, he thinks it was a shark. He only got a quick glimpse, and he conveniently dropped his camera right before, so he’s not sure. Regardless, he vows to set out on a quest to kill this very same shark, avenging his best friend’s death in the process.
To do this, he gathers up his crew, acquires funding, and sets out to sea. Because this is a Wes Anderson movie, you’ll be unsurprised to learn that most of the members of his crew are weird in more ways than one. There’s a German who always looks for attention (Willem Dafoe), a wife who might or might not support his decisions (Anjelica Huston), a financial guy who is here because otherwise funding would be impossible (Bud Cort), a reporter who is writing a story whose purpose is undetermined (Cate Blanchett), and a man who turns up right before the voyage and declares that he may or may not be Steve’s son (Owen Wilson).
Along this journey, many things will happen that you will both expect and not expect. I will not ruin either, but I will say that there are a couple of action scenes in this film that feel like they’re taking place in a dream — except it turns out they’re actually happening, and that’s all kinds of awesome. It also made me wonder what type of film we’d get if director Wes Anderson decided to make an actual action film. One can ponder such a thing, I suppose.
Steve Zissou is quite the character, and I mean that in the way that the barber says “he’s quite the character, that guy.” He’s someone almost defined by his persona, who cannot separate the man from the image. He never wanted kids, and now he (maybe) has one. You expect this to possibly change him and open his eyes to … something. The joys of parenthood, perhaps, or maybe just toning down the eccentric personality. It doesn’t really do this, however, proving just how powerful this identity has become in his life.
The characters and dialogue are what make a Wes Anderson movie. In The Royal Tenenbaums, he proved that he could keep a large ensemble cast well-balanced and developed. It’s unfortunate that this skill wasn’t utilized in this film. The characters are far thinner, and while they’re quirky, there isn’t much reason for that apart from that being the expected at this point in Anderson’s career. Only Steve Zissou manages to have any sense of dimension; everyone else is a caricature, and most aren’t memorable and don’t feel important because of this.
It’s true that the dialogue is still funny, and the situations are ridiculous, but because the don’t involve strong characters, they’re less enjoyable. There aren’t too many laughs scattered throughout The Life Aquatic, which is unfortunate, because some more comedy would have helped the film. In this sense, it’s the first true “failure” for Anderson as, at least for me, it didn’t provide enough laughs to be considered a successful comedy. Quirkiness for the sake of it isn’t inherently funny.
The film does look great, and it has some interesting visual flourishes to ensure that there’s always something to look at even if you’re not going to be caring a whole lot. There’s some stop-motion animation, a film-within-a-film, an a bright color palette. Now, if these had gone to serve a greater purpose, perhaps we’d be talking about a good film. As it is, The Life Aquatic is watchable but not recommendable, if that makes sense. There’s no real reason to see it, but also nothing that makes me want to hold anyone back from doing so.
Part of the reason to see it, if you’re inclined to do so, is to see the performance turned in by Bill Murray, who creates such a fascinating character and deserves many accolades for this role. Muray has always had good comedic timing, and gets almost all of the laughs in a film that desperately wanted more of them. But his dramatic work and the man he plays with such complexity here is fantastic, and Murray is one of the main reasons that The Life Aquatic remains so watchable.
The other performances are kind of disappointing, especially in contrast to the tour-de-force put on by Murray. Owen Wilson gets the second most screen time, but he does very little with it. His character is bland and he doesn’t have much chemistry with Murray, which results in the father-son storyline falling flat. Even Cate Blanchett, usually great, doesn’t do a whole lot with what she’s given here. It’s like the rest of the cast decided to be lackluster in hopes of highlighting Murray.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou isn’t necessarily a bad film, but it’s not one that’s really worth seeking out unless you want to see the entire filmography of Wes Anderson, wish to see one of the better performances of Bill Murray’s career, or desire an homage to Jacques Cousteau. It’s not a terribly funny or dramatic film, and most of the secondary actors are playing caricatures instead of actual characters. There’s no reason to actively avoid the film, but there’s also little reason to seek it out.