Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Film Review: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Believe me, watching a film's a big event in our household, due to our current schedule and the fact that The Wife tends to fall asleep during the first third, no matter what time we start it (all right, all right, stop laughing). It's funny: I prefer listening to music in isolation, but these days I think of films as social events and don't like watching alone.

Friday's film was Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which came pre-recommended since I quite liked Rushmore and also co-writer Noah Baumbach's first couple of films. Baumbach fell on hard times at the turn of the millennium, but fortunately has found his feet again, unlike certain other indie auteurs.

Bill Murray is very good as the deadpan title character, a borderline has-been Jacques Cousteau-type adventurer who's half action hero, half show-biz fake. The meat of the plot revolves around Zissou, at a turning point in his career and needing to prove something not least of all to himself, meeting up with Ned (Owen Wilson), who is presumed to be his son via one of many decades-old trysts. The two of them attempt to size each other up as they, along with crew ("Team Zissou") go off on a last-kick-at-the can adventure that ends up getting sidetracked more than once. It's an off-kilter, campy, slightly forlorn comedy that's visually smart and very fast-paced; scenes and dialogue are often carried across cuts with little or no pause. The first few minutes of the film show off name cast like a Robert Altman film, with rapid-fire appearances by Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Michael Gambon, Anjelica Houston and Noah Taylor.

The comparison to Rushmore is apt, because both it and TLAwSZ airdrop the viewer into a strange, hyper-realized world in medias res. I found that weird in the former, but managed to go with the flow because of its charm and the unfolding of plot; in the latter, it's much harder to find the way in. Jason Schwartzman's preternaturally clever Adrian Mole-type character was exceptional but understandable, whereas Zissou's motives are extremely hard to--forgive me--fathom, and you're never sure that he's not a complete phony and self-promoter (which may be the point, I suppose). The film is incredibly funny most of the time, but the plot turns mushy once the crew of the Belafonte set sail on their presumably last mission. The last hour is basically a caper comedy with complications developing between Murray, Wilson and lurve interest Cate Blanchett.

The Life Aquatic is recommendable for the visual style and the laughs alone (as well as the Portuguese versions of Bowie songs). It's also fairly consistent in its aesthetic, in that it's weird 'cos it's weird, rather than for weirdness' sake. I just wish that there was a little more steak here to go along with the sizzle.