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indieWIRE Review: “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” Exquisite Corpse

indieWIRE Review: "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," Exquisite Corpse

indieWIRE Review: “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” Exquisite Corpse

by Michael Koresky (with responses from Karen Wilson and Michael Joshua Rowin)

Bill Murray and the cast of “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.” Photo Credit: Philippe Antonello. © 2004 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

[ indieWIRE weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot. Founded by four friends in the winter of 2003, Reverse Shot (www.reverseshot.com) is a new kind of online and print community aimed at the next generation of film lovers. Reverse Shot’s unique symposium format allows writers an unprecedented flexibility in choosing the films they get to write about which leads to better, more exciting articles. Irreverent, intelligent, rigorous, not rigor-mortised. ]

In the past, Wes Anderson‘s love for his characters transcended boundaries; literally, for no contemporary American director seems to put up greater boundaries than Wes Anderson. Like Charles M. Schulz, in his “Peanuts” comic strip, Anderson positions his witty, vulnerable, heart-heavy human creations into tight frames, dresses them up in the same clothes day after day, and places them very firmly within specific social perimeters, from which they rarely stray. His focus can be thrillingly rigorous, yet at times, Anderson’s characters seem so permanently situated that it’s hard to imagine what lies beyond the borders of the screen; what do these worlds grasp outside of their own borders? Certainly, once you find a groove with “Rushmore”‘s delicately subversive oddity, it becomes something minorly spectacular, a new way of seeing something that may have seemed rote in any other context — Coming of age? High school rebellion? Once it’s sandwiched into Wes’s tight, wide compositions, all genre expectations thankfully fly out the window, it enters a discreet realm, one in which wistfulness permeates even moments of high pranksterism. In his tenuous balance between pratfalls and pathos, Anderson found even greater pockets of captivating melancholy in “The Royal Tenenbaums” — its pleasures flooded out from first frame to last, and its every glimmer of emotional truth negated all fear that it would cross the line into stifling self-regard.

“The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” seems more like the work of a filmmaker who has begun to believe too much in his own cult status; almost as if in parodic response to the perceived threat of his increasingly hermeticized movie worlds, his latest candy-colored concoction of lost boys and broken homes moves inexorably toward an even more airless setting: a submarine. With “Life Aquatic,” a surprisingly episodic, visually astonishing self-anointed entry into the director’s canon, preciousness begets nothing more than preciousness. The cartoonish sensibility of his mise-en-scène — always one of the markers of his ingenuity rather than a sign of immaturity — becomes hopelessly literalized with an odd, flat assortment of Henry Selick stop-motion sea creatures, and his honorable focus on fractured families this time seems shoe-horned into an overly designed schematic — Cousteau-ish oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is reunited with his long lost son (Owen Wilson), Ned, before embarking on a mission to destroy the legendary Jaguar shark that killed his partner.

Just as Anderson goes a couple steps too close to self-containment, his actors also find themselves stuck in their well-worn personas. Murray, whose quietly corrosive comic persona, honed in “Rushmore,” and sharpened to a fine point in last year’s “Lost in Translation,” here pushes his sagging mannerisms to the realm of complete estrangement; he seems contemptuous of everything around him. And most awful, Wilson decimates nearly every scene he’s in by heightening his worst deadpan tendencies. Only Willem Dafoe, as Steve’s temperamental, very German second-in-command, Klaus, seems to be able to extricate himself from the film’s predetermined palette, with a delightfully inventive performance. Otherwise, the whole project is so rigid — to its actors’ personalities, its own plot mechanics, to its target hipster audience expectations — that it feels more like lesser Kaurismäki, another purposely alienating yet art-house-adored phenom. There’s not much to coerce laughter from the audience besides their need to feel like part of the Wes enclave.

Of the new American auteurs that emerged in the late Nineties, all of whom narrowed their vision down to site-specific, personal regions and never shied away from a certain spiritual ennui, Wes Anderson seems thus far to be the least able to transgress. While Alexander Payne balances his penchant for broad comic symbolism by continuing to find new ways of pinpointing beautifully human hypocrisies, and P.T. Anderson‘s heightened melodramatics are justified by a passion for his characters that borders on zealotry, Wes Anderson can’t seem here to find a proper excuse for his beautifully mordant, Charlie Brown-esque tableaux; now it seems like his characters are merely standing around, waiting for something to just sort of fall from the sky. While “Rushmore” and “Royal Tenenbaums” both ended on stunning grace notes, remarkable not just for their visual efficacy but their ability to draw out the emotional lucidity previously cloaked in frames suffocatingly crammed with stimulating design, wallpaper, and uniforms, “Life Aquatic”‘s underwater climax, with its stabs at ethereal beauty, seems simply forced and imitative of its own filmmaker’s prepackaged methods. Compare this to the effortless dignity of Max Fischer flying kites with Margaret Yang, or Chas Tenenbaum’s tearful reconciliation with his father; in “Aquatic” the journey towards utter aesthetic immersion is completed.

[ Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of “Reverse Shot,” as well as the assistant editor and frequent contributor of “Film Comment.” He has also written for Cinemascope, Filmmaker, and Westchester Journal News. ]

Bill Murray and Owen Wilson. Photo Credit: Philippe Antonello. © 2004 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Take 2
by Karen Wilson

With “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” Anderson produces a reliable product similar to his previous three features — atmospheric Seventies-ish décor and detailing, deadpan performances by cinema’s leading character actors, and a soundtrack you’ll be humming for weeks. Yet this time he’s also tweaking the formula. “The Life Aquatic” contains elements which feel purposely foreign, such as the David Bowie soundtrack sung acoustic in Portuguese or the undisguised Italian-ness of the Cinecittá sets, but everything else so assuredly bears the Anderson imprint that dedicated fans shouldn’t be concerned. There’s something reassuring in Anderson’s painstaking composition. If nothing else, you have to admire the craftsmanship.

However, “Life Aquatic” really sings when it’s subtly mocking the moviemaking apparatus and Anderson’s position as its anointed hipster auteur. Reminiscent of the Tenenbaum townhouse or Rushmore Academy, the film’s most elaborate set, Zissou’s boat, is actually a floating movie studio for the oceanographer/documentarian. There’s an irreverence built in to the way that Anderson shows Bill Murray’s Zissou making his films that hilariously comments on the movie business. Script girl Anne-Marie works topless and organizes the crew’s eventual mutiny; a gaggle of awkward interns toil away for school credit and perhaps the chance for a full-time Production Assistant gig after graduation. Steve even brilliantly remarks, “It’s a documentary. It’s all really happening,” and without a trace of irony. Watching “Life Aquatic,” we know what we’re seeing is intensively constructed, yet the convictions of his characters in what they’re doing, no matter how flawed, is laudable. The humor here is less laugh-out-loud than it is thoughtful and studied. To quote Royal Tenenbaum, Wes Anderson is still “taking it out and chopping it up.”

[ Karen Wilson is the editor of Cinecultist.com, the film writer for the New York website Gothamist.com, and a contributor to “Reverse Shot.” ]

Take 3
By Michael Joshua Rowin

Bill Murray as Steve Zissou. Photo Credit: Philippe Antonello. © 2004 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

The prospect of a bigger, loftier-budgeted Wes Anderson picture sounds jaw-droppingly obscene to those not charmed by the smug irony of “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.” The only surprise of “The Life Aquatic,” Anderson’s latest attempt at dysfunctional dramedy, is that the larger canvas allows for a flowering of what was once the director’s overrated visual sense, with cinematography and art direction that combine gorgeous studio-shot interiors with natural beauty on the high seas.

Other than that, Anderson plays it safe. Failing to discover anything new on familiar thematic ground, Anderson inundates the audience with some grand, “Boy’s Life”-style adventure, an ocean of miscellaneous, uninspired plot turns meant to save the dramatically inert play of relationships. Explosions and gunfights feel out of place, even desperate, within a more typical Anderson universe populated by live-action cartoons — nonentities such as the crew member who sings classic Bowie in Portuguese, a needlessly bare-breasted script girl, and an effete, boorish rival explorer of Zissou’s. It’s all so precious and ultimately pointless, a collection of thrown together eccentricities and platitudes disguised as clever characterization.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of “The Life Aquatic” is indeed its meta-narrative: Zissou’s films document the crew’s documentary filmmaking. Of course, Zissou’s films look exactly like Anderson’s films, down to each symmetrical, head-on shot. When love interest/reporter Cate Blanchett writes that the Zissou uniform seems contrived, and when Ned points out Steve’s emotional manipulations for the sake of entertainment, it’s less Fellini than wink-wink, nudge-nudge. But also, oddly enough, a fairly accurate description of Anderson’s consistent shortcomings.

[ Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at “Reverse Shot,” has written for the Indypendent, Film Comment, and runs the blog, www.livejournal.com/users/hopelessabandon/. ]

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