Review – The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

dir., Wes Anderson, with Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Angelica Huston
Touchstone Pictures

Is there anyone under 30 who remembers, even ironically, the oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, and his National Geographic undersea documentaries of the 60s and 70s? The intrepid French capitain earnestly narrated as though he had a mouthful of very rich fois-gras at all times, and documented his voyages aboard the good ship Calypso (even the vaguely French word order of the title is a backhanded homage to old Jacques). Enter Bill Murray as Steve Zissou, documentarian, and his worshipful crew ,Team Zissou, as they sail on board the Belafonte, a state-of-the-art (c.1971) oceanographic vessel. Like Cousteau, Zissou wears a red watch cap, but he always wears it, even while wearing a tux. Zissou is an American Cousteau, but also a bit of Capt. Nemo, via Capt. Ahab. Often,though, he’s just blank, like Peter Sellers in Being There.

When his loyal cinematographer is eaten one day by a “leopard shark” (sic), Capt. Zissou annouces that he will hunt and kill it. “On what scientific basis?” a reporter asks. “Revenge,” Zissou replies matter-of-factly, a line only Bill Murray could deliver properly. Along for the ride are Zissou’s ex-wife (Angelica Huston), her ex-husband (Jeff Goldblum), and a man (Owen Wilson) who might be Zissou’s son, but neither one of them is sure.

Wes Anderson movies aren’t about anything, really (The Royal Tenebaums was similar: what was that about, anyway? Was it even a comedy? Beats me) He just creates an imaginary but vaguely plausible world as meticulously as possible, thinks up some characters to go in it, lets one situation take place and watches to see where it all goes, if anywhere. Whether it’s all worth it at the end, and you leave feeling satisfied or perplexed, there are details you’ll came away remembering, and will want to see again. I couldn’t help thinking, though, that it’s easier to do that on a DVD in your living room than in a theater at ¥1800 a pop.

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