Bill Murray as Steve Zissou
Owen Wilson as Ned Plimpton
Cate Blanchett as Jane Winslett-Richardson
Anjelica Huston as Eleanor Zissou
Willem Dafoe as Klaus Daimler
Jeff Goldblum as Alistair Hennessey
Michael Gambon as Oseary Drakoulias
Noah Taylor as Vladimir Wolodarsky
Bud Cort as Bill Ubell
Seu Jorge as Pelé dos Santos
Robyn Cohen as Anne-Marie Sakowitz
Waris Ahluwalia as Vikram Ray
Pawel Wdowczak as Renzo Pietro
Seymour Cassel as Esteban du Plantier
As the title points out, the film’s main character is Steve Zissou (inhabited by the indelible and pitch-perfect Bill Murray), famed oceanographer and renowned documentary filmmaker. Anderson opens with the introduction of Zissou’s latest film, which features the demise of Zissou’s partner by way of a mythical sea creature. Before departing on his current mission to hunt and kill the creature that ate his partner, Zissou is approached by his estranged son, Ned (former Anderson writing partner, Owen Wilson). Ned is recruited by the elder Zissou to join Team Zissou on his ship, The Belafonte, as they embark on their latest mission/documentary film.
The joy of any Wes Anderson film lies in the details, as few other modern filmmakers seems so obsessed with getting every detail of the film correctly. The Life Aquatic is no exception, featuring a giant vessel dubbed the Belafonte, where most of the film unfolds. Via a giant cross-section of the ship, the various rooms of the ship are explored via voice-over; the look of the ship is extremely detailed and the effects of the scene are polarizing. Many will not be “with” the film after this scene, while those who find the scene enthralling will thoroughly enjoy the remainder of the movie. This make-it-or-break-it scene looks fantastic on film and I found it an asset to the film, as it sets the tone of what is to come. Other rich details of the film include the Zissou team’s identical outfits (including embossed Adidas sneakers), Anderson’s signature typographical font (Futura Bold for those interested) applied on any text seen in the film, Seu Jorge’s wonderful renditions of David Bowie songs in Portuguese, and many others that enrich the film greatly.
Anderson has dubbed Bill Murray’s performance in the film Brando-esqe in interviews and his compliment isn’t far off. Murray’s expressionless delivery is perfectly suited to Anderson and Baumbach’s equally dry dialogue. While Murray is easy to laugh at, he is never allowed to come into his own emotionally until the end of the film. The climactic scene is a beauty and really imbues Zissou with a large amount of heart that is dreadfully missed in early sequences. Zissou seems a comfortable role for Murray, as he has been playing the enlightened curmudgeon type in almost every movie as of late. Other standouts in the diverse cast include Willem Dafoe’s madcap shipmate Klaus, Jeff Goldblum as Zissou’s equally kooky archrival, and Cate Blanchett as a reporter swept away in the nutty world of Steve Zissou.
While Anderson’s other films have included the similar attention to detail and such eclectic casts, The Life Aquatic suffers various screenplay problems. While the opening of the film is a joy to watch, there is a long lull after the sizeable cast has been introduced until a major event kicks the film into high gear straight to the fantastic climax. While the lull does feature some humorous moments, it’s a serious problem as any momentum that the film gained in the opening is now lost on the already weary audience; three to four people walked out in the middle of the film and I believe it was due to the skewed pacing of the middle of the film.
While many will pan the film comparing it to Anderson’s past works, The Life Aquatic stands on its own as a genuine piece of great, progressive filmmaking for the hardworking director. Henry Selick’s animated sea creatures add greatly to the film, as well as the larger scope of the film’s Italian locale. The film was shot in the legendary Cinecitta Studios in Rome and there is a definite European feel. Anderson’s camera work has never been so strong; his frames are full of eye candy, prompting the viewer to return to the theater to see what they missed the first time around. There is much to look at besides the wonderful performances in the film, as the sets and locations have a distinct look that gels perfectly with the film.
Ultimately, I’d recommend the film because of Anderson’s unique direction and the fantastic performances of his more-than-able cast.