Will success spoil Wes Anderson? That seemed to be the question on the minds of many who have followed this quirky director’s rising career from his debut film Bottle Rocket (1996) through Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tennenbaums (2001). But the only effect that larger budget Anderson has to work with for his latest film The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is given him a larger canvas to tell yet another story of dysfunctional family life.
Steve Zissou is a world famous oceanographer and explorer whose career, marriage and life are falling apart. While he once starred in a series of popular series of documentary films where everyday was a new adventure and every creature encountered strange and exotic, he now struggles to find funding for a new expedition. His boat, the Belafonte, once state of the art, is now as woefully out of date as Zissou feels. (The “state of the art” communications room sports two Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III computers that were manufactured in 1980.) Zissou’s lowest point comes when his best friend Esteban is devoured by a hitherto unknown species of shark, which he has named “jaguar shark.” Determined to kill the shark, Zissou assembles his crew for what could very well be a suicide mission for himself. Joining the crew of the Belafonte is Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) who may or not be Zissou’s illegitimate son and pregnant reporter Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett).
The world of Steve Zissou is a fascinating one and owes much to the Jacques Cousteau PBS specials and the Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom nature series of the 1960s and `70s. Anderson has populated it with such fantastic creatures as the crayon ponyfish, sugar crabs and jaguar sharks. Zissou’s crew is equally as colorful from the member who sings David Bowie songs in Portuguese to William Dafoe’s truly hysterical turn as Klaus who is more than a little possessive of Zissou’s attention.
Anderson seems to be building his own stock company of actors for his films with Murray, Wilson and Huston returning from previous projects. All three give beautifully restrained comic performances never overplaying a comedic moment and giving appropriate weight in the more dramatic scenes. Zissou, a role Anderson wrote specifically for Murray, is sardonic and emotionally standoffish while struggling to figure out how to deal with his hitherto unknown son. Jeff Goldblum, as Zissou’s more successful rival, brings his own uniquely restrained acting style, which blends well with Anderson’s sensibilities. (Goldblum’s casting also allows the director to close the film with a tip of the hat to the 1984 cult film The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai which also featured Goldblum.)
Like a good martini, Anderson’s sense of humor is a bit of an acquired taste and may not suit all people. If you can make the connection between the names of Jacques Cousteau’s famed ship and Steve Zissou’s and it makes you chuckle than this movie is for you. The Life Aquatic may be a bit more contemplative than Anderson’s previous work, but that’s fine. It doesn’t claim to espouse the meaning of life, but charts the course of one man’s personal journey in finding it.