Friday, February 18, 2005

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU may be the most disappointing movie of 2005

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU may well be, for me, the most disappointing movie of 2005. This is because it is made by a director, Wes Anderson, whose previous films I have loved without reservation. Given that THE LIFE AQUATIC stars many of the same actors, covers many of the same themes, and lives in the same eccentric, richly-designed world, what went wrong? To cut a long story short, I think "sameness" is the problem. First, there is a problem when we see the same actors portray variations on the same character time and time again. In the case of THE LIFE AQUATIC the key culprit is Bill Murray. In the second half of his career he seems to be perfecting the role of world-weary, painfully self-aware, benumbed wanderer. Granted he is once again fantastic in this movie, but oh my goodness, the whole routine does seem a little tired. It was breathtaking in RUSHMORE, subtley different but still compelling in ROYAL TENENBAUMS, but by the time we have seen LOST IN TRANSLATION and the forthcoming BROKEN FLOWERS... well you get the picture. Ditto seeing Owen Wilson once again as the innocent-idiot; Angelica Huston as the wise-put-upon wife; and let us not forget the obligatory Indian guy. It just seems like Wes Anderson has his zone of comfort as far as characters are concerned.

Similarly, the thematic material is well-worn - disappointed sons and reluctant fathers; super-fan outsiders who desperately want to be part of the Cool group; relationships between the sexes that are fraught with misunderstandings - love triangles and love squares; the difficulty of dreamers to deal with the real world of hard cash; and the difficulty of dreamers to continue to believe in themselves when all around them doubt The Plan. We've been here before. Indeed, we've been here ever since BOTTLE ROCKET.

Moreover, all those incidental but important features of a movie that make up the tone of the picture - production design, sound-track - have taken over the asylum. It used to be that you were compelled to watch a Wes Anderson movie two or three times just to take in the richness of the set design and remember just what that cool track was. But now, the cute little details of set design are all there is. I so wanted to be interested in Steve Zissou 's (for which read Jacques Cousteau's) journey to hunt down the mythic jaguar shark and avenge the death of his partner Esteban. I so wanted to be fascinated by the relationship between Steve and his long-lost son, Ned. But somehow, every time the movie threatened to give us a bit of character development we got another scene with a cute red bobble hat, or crew-member Pele dos Santos (Seu Jorge) singing a David Bowie song. For, in the final analysis, this movie is a triumph of style, tone and mood over the substance that is the narrative arc and character development.

What I guess it all comes down to is that the movie just isn't as funny as TENENBAUMS. Perhaps this is because Anderson's usual writing partner, Owen Wilson, has been replaced by Noah Baumbach? Or perhaps it just signals that what was once magical and fascinating and amusing has now become stale. I tend toward the latter.

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU opened in the US last fall, and opens in the UK today. It opens in France on March 9th 2005, and in Austrian and Germany on March 17th.

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