The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) Directed by Wes Anderson
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou has been one of my favorite feel-good movies since I first saw it six years ago. I have not seen it for many years though, and this time around I realized it's not really a feel-good film. What does that say about me? What kind of a person feels comforted and happy watching a strange twisted story about a mid-life crises, dysfunctional relationships, dying loved ones and a father-son relationship, which is based on not knowing each other? A not very conventionally happy person I guess. Someone who feel familiar with dysfunction in relationships. What about the mid-life crises? I was 23 when I first watched this movie.
I still know nothing about mid-life crises. But I love Bill Murray as Steve Zissou. I also love him as the washed-up actor in Lost In Translation, a film published a year before The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, in 2003. It feels as if Murray is pretty much a continuation or an expansion of the same character here. As someone notes on the extras to The Life Aquatic, it is difficult to know where the role begins and Murray ends. Feeling lost and uncomfortable, pressured and distanced from one's own life is not of course only a privilege of the mid-lifers. The Life Aquatic has a pregnant journalist who is separating from her married lover while drifting at sea with Zissou's gang, it has a long-lost son who shows up after his mother has died, and it has a host of other characters equally struggling for a place in their changing lives.
Life is always changing in the movies. Static existence does not make good narrative and it is unrealistic too. The reason that must have weighed heavily on The Life Aquatic gaining its status as one of my feel-good movies in the mid-noughties is Wes Anderson's aesthetics. He does detail, he does color and style. Another reason why I had a special relationship to this film is that it was one of our first DVDs that we actually owned. Owning things creates repetition. Repetition is safety.
As a child in the school playground, I would peruse my fellow student's satchels and duffel bags for any signs of badges or iron-on patches. Strange behavior you might think, but any badge or such notice of fandom would invariably be unique and belong to an exclusive fan club. I remember distinctly at the age of eight my mate Andy having the coolest Planet of the Apes badges, only available to fan club members of the TV series. Abba, Evil Knievel, Starsky & Hutch and quite possibly Jacques Cousteau were all ripe for fan club indulgence. I was too poor to subscribe to any fan clubs, but I did manage to trade comics for Planet Of The Apes, Abba and The Fonz from Happy Days badges. All boys' own stuff if you like (except the super girly Abba). I mention Jacques Cousteau as he was the underwater explorer of the era (early 1970's) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou pays homage to Cousteau, although, in reality it's a bit more complicated than that.
Wes Anderson always has a strong sense of family and relationship in his films. From Rushmore through to The Royal Tenenbaums and onto The Darjeeling Limited, dysfunctional, lost family members reunited under trying circumstances dominate his films. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou continues these themes under the backdrop of the life of undersea explorer and documentary film maker Steve Zissou (played by the effortless Bill Murray). Steve's life, far from going well is in a rut. His legend is fading, his movies flop, his best friend has been devoured by some new species of shark and his marriage is a sham. His vessel, The Belafonte needs replenishing and his crew, although loyal are weary. But into Steve's life appears his possible son from a previous relationship (Owen Wilson as Ned) which belatedly ignites Steve's sense of fatherhood whilst against all odds pushing him to new deep-sea adventures.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is eccentricity incarnate and often very funny while keeping the emotional tug strong. Anderson supplies great support for Murray and Wilson, with a reverent portrayal of Angelica Huston (Anderson remembers how Huston should look on screen), Willem Dafoe, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum and Michael Gambon all delightful. Color co-ordination of every amazing set is exquisite, photography richer than a 1970's copy of National Geographic. The soundtrack, as usual with an Anderson movie, is knowing and uplifting. This is a rich feast for the senses. But Anderson doesn't stop there, because not only is The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou an original in almost every sense, it reminds us that nothing pulls and tears us apart quite like the inner or outer turmoils of families we all strive to be part of. Just watch and wonder.