FUN WITH A FIN : Wes Anderson 's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou [7/10]

Having filled supporting roles (of greater or lesser prominence) in Wes Anderson's last two features Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, the now Oscar-nominated  Bill Murray assumes centre-stage as Steve Zissou, an ocean-exploring (American) documentary-maker whose resemblance to Jacques Cousteau is clearly not accidental. Now 52, Zissou is all too aware that he's suffering from a serious creative slump – and his state of mind isn't helped when he witnesses his long-time colleague and best friend (Seymour Cassel) being eaten by some kind of freakishly outsize jaguar shark.

At an Italian film-festival for the premiere of his latest movie, Zissou – far from discouraged by the film's lukewarm reception – announces that his next project will chronicle his quest for revenge against the mysterious leviathan which devoured his pal. His shady producer Drakoulias (Michael Gambon) manages to scrape together sufficient funding for the mission to begin. Joining Zissou on board his ship (the  'Belafonte') are his regular crew in  'Team Zissou' – including the loyal, insecure Klaus (Willem Dafoe),  and laid-back Pele (Seu Jorge from City of God), a Brazilian guitarist who spends most of his time belting out David Bowie classics in Portuguese. Also along for the ride: a haughty, pregnant English journalist (Cate Blanchett), a  'stooge' sent by Zissou's producer's hated insurance company (Bud Cort) and Kentucky Airlines pilot Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), who may – or may not – be Zissou's long-lost son. Complications rapidly ensue.*

The general consensus seems to be that Anderson – after scoring critical praise, an Oscar nomination and an unexpected box-office bullseye with The Royal Tenenbaums  ­– has taken something of an overdue bath with The Life Aquatic. A lot of people have never been able to take his films, of course – their cleverness, their hermeticism, their "preciousness", their exquisitely-framed compositions, their fixation on bourgeois prodigies, their clipped, high-falutin' dialogue. And many more viewers haven't been sure how to take them at all: witness David Thomson's smart-alec, cop-out, 13-word "entry" on Anderson in the 2003 edition of his Biographical Dictionary of Film ("Watch this space. What does that mean? That he might be something one day.") This in a book which devotes three whole paragraphs to the "boring, complacent" Ben Affleck.

It's a fair bet that The Life Aquatic won't win over any new admirers to Anderson's work. Nor will it come anywhere near Tenenbaums' box-office. And even his staunchest fans will probably concede that he seems to be on a downward slope – leaving aside his little-seen (but, in many quarters, much-loved) debut feature Bottle Rocket, Rushmore was a minor masterpiece and Tenenbaums a glorious rag-bag that often skirted brilliance. The Life Aquatic is another notch downwards – but Anderson is still capable of remarkable things, and even if the whole thing doesn't quite hang together, there's more than enough here to keep him very close to the top of any list of the leading younger American directors.

In terms of direction, his flair for composition, editing and basic camera-work remains remarkable – The Life Aquatic (photographed, like all of Anderson's features, by Robert D Yeoman) is easily one of the most remarkable-looking films of the year,  really coming into its own in the underwater sequences which feature animated, imaginary fauna courtesy of Tim Burton collaborator Henry Selick. There's no-one else around who uses the zoom like Anderson, no-one else who quite uses colour in this way, no-one else who uses so many on-screen titles in his favourite blocky fonts – it's absolutely impossible to confuse his work with anyone else's.

In the area of the script, however, Anderson has many more problems. Owen Wilson co-wrote his first three feature screenplays, and now Noah Baumbach (writer-director of 1995's acclaimed Kicking and Screaming and the upcoming The Squid and the Whale) takes over as collaborator. On a scene-by-scene basis, the individual episodes are witty, distinctive and fresh – but they don't really come together into a coherent whole. Despite many discussions about emotions and regret, etc, there's no real impact when one of the major characters is unexpectedly killed off – the film floats just happily along in its brightly-coloured, fantastical bubble and nothing really matters. It's an intoxicating ride, to be sure – filled with delightful touches, lines of dialogue, images. But it all feels like play, an elaborate game with no consequences, no real stakes – which is why the arrival on the scene of some genuinely brutal pirates feels so bizarrely out of place. Anderson makes an endearingly unlikely action-director for a few chaotic scenes, but the picture never really regains full steam after these ill-advised escapades – even the supposed climax, in which the (admittedly spectacular) tiger shark is finally tracked down, feels somewhat tacked-on.

Anderson, however, for all his uber-nerd image, is more self-aware than most current film-makers – and many of Steve's lines as he ponders the state of his career carry a decidedly autobiographical ring, wondering aloud whether he'll ever regain his talent: in this regard The Life Aquatic is very much Anderson's Boogie Nights, a self-reflexive film about the arduous glories of film-making (focussing on a relatively unorthodox form of cinema), in which we see an unusual, unlikely but somehow successful family unit being forged from disparate parts. But Anderson is no grizzled veteran like Burt Reynolds' Jack Horner – and while Zissou is 52, Anderson is still only 33 and coming off the back of what was, by conventional measures, a singularly successful movie. If he was so worried after Tenenbaums, you have to ask yourself, what kind of state is he going to be in after the ludicrously harsh reception afforded to the ever-so-slightly disappointing, but winningly charming Life Aquatic?

Neil Young
15th February, 2005

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU : USA 2004 : Wes Anderson : 118 mins
Seen at Odeon cinema (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK) 15th February, 2005 – press show

* a reader writes:
You wrote, "His shady producer Drakoulias (Michael Gambon) manages to scrape together sufficient funding for the mission to begin." when in fact he hadn't, they were meeting on that boat to try to meet people to get funding. Secondly you list ned last and don’t even explain that he is the reason they get the money, he is also a big reason for steve exacting revange on the pirates, there are so many aspects of what that character does for the film that you cast away and continue on to say how wes anderson is on a downward slope. Your more concerned with trashing a guy who has done great films than you are with what actualy happens in the movie. I'm sure you talked to someone before you watched it and I'm sure it went something like this, "Yeah I picked up the new Wes Anderson flick, I've heard its crap and I'm sure it is because he's slipping and I don’t think he will ever get better even though he's only in his 30's and continues to make solid films time after time, but I don’t have anything else to do so I'll trash it."