The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (review)

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Sea Steve Run

I hope Wes Anderson, should he ever read this, won’t be insulted by what I’m about to say… but somehow, I think he’ll take it in the spirit of geeky adoration in which it is intended.

It’s this: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is like a Bugs Bunny cartoon for grownups. Okay, yes, Bugs Bunny cartoons were for grownups anyway, but I mean like really for grownups, no pretending, no kidding, a giddy lark that’s hilarious in a snort-milk-out-your-nose kind of way and yet weirdly, unexpectedly poignant too. There just aren’t enough movies like this one — like all of Anderson’s movies — square and cool at the same time, bursting with maniacal energy, and wildly original. When you think you’ve gotten tired of movies, a movie like Aquatic renews your faith in their wonderfulness and wakes you up to all the unexplored routes movies still have to take.
There’s a marvelous off-balance hyperrealism to the world of Steve Zissou, like the lights are a little too bright and all human interactions happen a quarter turn out of skew — people seem to anticipate others’ reactions in a way they shouldn’t be able to unless they’re superattuned to others’ moods. We never know quite what to expect of them — they’re either insulted or unperturbed by the unlikeliest of things, and they don’t hesitate to mix evening clothes with red ski caps, which if nothing else highly recommends them. They’re the kind of characters people who really love the escapism of the movies go to the movies to spend time with: they’re better than real people, funnier and wiser and weirder and more alive than real people. They’re the good kind of cartoon people: magnified, larger than life. They keep you on your toes in a way that would be exasperating in real life, but to visit with them is sheer silly joy.

The plot is quite beside the point — it involves the hunt for “the elusive jaguar shark” that killed the longtime partner of world-famous oceanographer and documentarian Steve Zissou. But it’s just a chance to throw all these great characters together and let them get on one another’s nerves and save one another’s lives — spiritually speaking, of course: Owen Wilson’s (Around the World in 80 Days, Starsky & Hutch) Ned Plimpton, who may or may not be Steve’s son but is hanging around to get to know Steve anyway; Cate Blanchett’s (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Missing) Jane Winslett-Richardson, a journalist writing a piece on The Zissou Society but becoming more of a disruption than anything else; Anjelica Huston’s (Daddy Day Care, The Mists of Avalon) Eleanor Zissou, Steve’s wife and greatest patron; Willem Dafoe’s (Spider-Man 2, The Clearing) Klaus Daimler, Steve’s lieutenant; Jeff Goldblum’s (Igby Goes Down, Cats & Dogs) Alistair Hennessey, Steve’s greatest adversary.

And then there’s Bill Murray’s (Coffee and Cigarettes, Lost in Translation) Zissou, who’s clinging to the dregs of his relevance with his Zissou Society and his weird little Fellini-esque films that go over big in Europe. He’s instantly one of the great characters in filmdom — he’s like a failed Bond villain, a man with his own island lair and small private army but without the ambition or gravity to actually ignite into full-fledged bad-guyness. So instead he just plays at being an asshole. Murray is brilliant. The whole cast, in fact, is as good as they’ve ever been — Wilson exuding a quiet enthusiasm, Blanchett a worldly practicality, and on and on; they’re the best ensemble of the year — and they’re having a kind of snarky intellectual fun that’s highly infectious.

Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore) maintains a level of ingenious insanity bubbling along at a nice low boil so that you think there’s no way he can sustain it, and yet it keeps getting better, from the Technicolor seahorse in the champagne glass to the soundtrack of acoustic David Bowie tunes performed in Portuguese all the way up to the Buckaroo Banzaistyle closing credits. This is a movie to watch a million times and never tire of.

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