The Life Aquatic

The Life Aquatic

****1/2

Reviewed by: The Exile

A fey, friendly commentary on everything from father/son rivalry to the filmmaking profession itself, Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic is more flippant than The Royal Tenenbaums, but also more (forgive the pun) buoyant. Gene Hackman is an actor who likes to get his hands dirty in a role and his patriarch in Tenenbaums was a volatile force of nature. Bill Murray, on the other hand, favours a gentle, ironic distance. His style is all plausible deniability.

Here he plays Steve Zissou, an aging oceanographer a la Jacques Cousteau, who films his exploits and releases them as populist documentaries. Like Cousteau, Steve's operation is decidedly low-tech, his boat, the Belafonte, scarcely better equipped than Cousteau's Calypso. (Slyly, Anderson adds an onboard troubadour singing calypso-styled Bowie songs in Portuguese.) Time, however, is out of mind in The Life Aquatic: everything in the movie, from the sets to the costumes, could belong anywhere in the last 40 years.

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As the film opens, Steve is facing several distractions. A "jaguar shark" has killed his longtime partner and he must avenge the death. A pregnant magazine reporter (Cate Blanchett, still channeling Katharine Hepburn from The Aviator) wants to tag along for a profile of Steve and his crew. An earnest young man named Ned (Owen Wilson, exchanging his cowboy suit from Tenenbuams for an Air Kentucky pilot's uniform) shows up and may be Steve's illegitimate son. Meanwhile, Steve's haughty wife, Eleanor (a slinky Anjelica Huston) is toying with her ex-husband, Steve's arch rival, Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum). "Be nice to him, he's my nemesis," whispers Steve to Eleanor, encapsulating the movie's twin ambitions of playfulness and emotional crisis.

Anderson creates sealed, self-supporting worlds, crammed with excruciating detail. They can appear over designed, but carefully viewed, those details reveal breathtaking purpose. Like the academy in Rushmore and the Tenenbaum mansion, the Belafonte is a hive of clues, references, jokes and outright whimsy. Waving aside computer assistance, Anderson constructed the boat's inner skeleton on a sound stage at Italy's CinecĂ­tta Studios, then photographed it like a frozen section of human tissue laid out for biopsy. With a single, slow pan, the camera exposes both the beating heart of Steve's world and the ingenious mind of its creator.

There's something keenly nostalgic in Anderson's films, tweaked here by Murray's melancholy presence. Still cloaked in the world-weary tristesse of Lost In Translation, positioning himself at his usual remove, his performance sometimes slips into passivity; unlike Royal Tenenbaum, who combated the stifling effect of that film's elaborate production design with the full force of the Hackman personality, Murray defers to Anderson's hermetic world. But no one conveys the self-centered childishness of the aging star like Murray. "Want to go to my island?" he asks the reporter, a four-year-old showing off his toys. "Want to go up in my balloon?"

Flooding the screen with light and colour, Anderson bombards us with animated marine life and bare-breasted script girls, Filipino pirates and a German-accented Willem Dafoe (hilariously aggrieved, as Steve's surrogate son). With wily humour, Anderson ramps up the camp, dressing Team Zissou in Speedos and matching bathrobes and red, condom-shaped watch caps. Exercising on the beach (guns strapped to thighs) or lounging in the Belafonte's jacuzzi (Camparis in hand), the Team is always perfectly, outrageously co-ordinated - rival Hennessey's crew resembles nothing so much as a bevy of hopefuls auditioning for Bravo's Manhunt.

The Life Aquatic may be the swishiest movie to pounce on mainstream audiences in years. It's certainly the most delightful.

Reviewed on: 24 Jan 2005
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The Life Aquatic packshot
An ageing oceanographer gathers a crew to hunt a shark that killed his partner.
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Director: Wes Anderson

Writer: Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach

Starring: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, Noah Taylor, Bud Cort, Seu Jorge, Robyn Cohen, Waris Ahluwalia

Year: 2004

Runtime: 118 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

Glasgow 2014

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