The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

A pure product of the "isn't it ironic" generation, filmmaker Wes Anderson's sensibilities are steeped in received experience, absorbed through a pop-culture filter of movies, TV and comic books — though THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS suggests he at least read The New Yorker as well. The resulting inclination towards archness, homage and precious observational humor...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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A pure product of the "isn't it ironic" generation, filmmaker Wes Anderson's sensibilities are steeped in received experience, absorbed through a pop-culture filter of movies, TV and comic books — though THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS suggests he at least read The New Yorker as well. The resulting inclination towards archness, homage and precious observational humor produces too-clever-by-half films full of glittering details sprinkled over a fundamental hollowness. And more's the pity, because this melancholy film boldly entangles itself in the unruly vagaries of human experience most Hollywood pictures shun in favor of one-note emotional fixes: The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, the triumph of the human spirit. Grizzled celebrity naturalist Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is drifting unhappily into middle aged irrelevance, still grinding out installments of his once-popular series of armchair adventure films, "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou." His intrepid "Team Zissou" — including Teutonic tinkerer Klaus (Willem Dafoe), physicist Vladimir Wolodarsky (Noah Taylor), guitar-strumming Pele dos Santos (Seu Jorge), who's always off in the background warbling David Bowie songs in Portuguese, and a rotating cast of exploited interns — is still loyal. But they're reeling from the loss of senior team member Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel) to a giant, heretofore unknown jaguar shark that just might be the pot-addled Zissou's very own white whale. Zissou is the joke of the explorers' club community, his boat is deteriorating into a useless rust bucket, and his marriage to brainy, beautiful Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) is on the rocks. Eleanor's ex-husband, lean, mean, grant-seeking machine Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), is diverting Zissou's funding. Courtly Kentucky Air pilot Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), who might be Zissou's son, wants to get to know his dad, and pregnant journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) is writing a warts-and-all piece for "Oceanographic Explorer" magazine. Zissou's quest for the jaguar shark is mostly an excuse for self-consciously quirky character bits, occasionally interrupted by trumped-up complications. Pirates, anyone? The film's running joke — that Zissou's knowledge of the deep blue sea is more amateurish than authoritative — might be its most poignant, not so much because you care about his self-centered travails, but because the gag throbs with the disenchantment of a child who grew up to suspect that the marvels of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau were staged. No wonder the film's fanciful sea creatures — fluorescent, jewel-like little dreams of what undersea life ought to look like — are all patently, beautifully fake. Stranded awkwardly between the heartfelt and the put-on, as though Anderson couldn't bear to finger the heartstrings without appending a juvenile gotcha! to every emotional moment, the film isn't even so cool it hurts. It's so cool all the life has drained away, leaving nothing behind but a faint whiff of attitude.

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  • Released: 2004
  • Rating: R
  • Review: A pure product of the "isn't it ironic" generation, filmmaker Wes Anderson's sensibilities are steeped in received experience, absorbed through a pop-culture filter of movies, TV and comic books — though THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS suggests he at least read The N… (more)

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