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Film Review: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

I love seeing films for free. I’m a cheap bastard like that. Even if it means getting up on a Sunday morning. I always worry that this might colour my review; not paying money and early mornings can influence things, no matter how one might try to maintain critical distance. I say this because I saw quite a few reviews that were down on the film and I was wondering why.

I’ll start out by saying that I enjoyed the film. I’m not a great fan of the whole sea-life idea and couldn’t care less about Jacques Cousteau, so I’m not particularly disposed to the subject matter. However, I became involved with the characters, I laughed, I cared about them and was moved by the ending, which is an impressive feat in my books. The film is about Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), a riff on Jacques Cousteau, from the red bobble hats to the complex love life, leader of Team Zissou and captain of The Belafonte, sea explorer and documentary film maker. They are on an expedition to kill the shark that ate Zissou’s friend. They are joined by a reporter (Cate Blanchett) and a man who claims to be Zissou’s son (Owen Wilson). Along the way, there are dealings with his nemesis (Jeff Goldblum), who happens to be his wife’s ex-husband, pirates and strange sea creatures.

The film is definitely Anderson-esque, if he has earned the right to an adjective of his name from the four films he’s made, with oddball characters, strange settings and idiosyncratic dialogue. The film is not about the plot, more about Zissou, as he reflects on his life, his decisions and the people in his life. Murray is great; it’s like his body and face have grown into his film persona, meaning he’s at the perfect age for his wry looks and dry delivery. All the supporting actors are people you enjoy watching; Cate Blanchett as the pregnant reporter; Michael Gambon as the producer; Angelica Houston as the brilliant but exasperated wife; Owen Wilson as the son; Jeff Goldblum as the rival; Willem Dafoe, hilarious as the German crewman with emotional issues.

There’s a wonderful unreal quality to the film, an atmosphere of ‘outsideness’ that Wes Anderson creates in his films, such as the doll-house quality of the interior of The Belafonte when we follow two characters through it in a tracking shot. I think this was why I didn’t enjoy the intrusion of the bluntly real pirates in the film, even though they possess an unreal quality themselves, as it seemed unpleasant for them to be there. The dialogue and the characters are wonderfully bizarre and amusing, and I was genuinely touched by the end, where everyone touches Zissou on the shoulder in the small submarine. I wonder if some of the more negative reviews for the film are suffering from some sort of ‘I preferred his earlier stuff that I discovered before you’ attitude, as this film is easily as good as his earlier work.

Rating: DAVE

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