OK, I’ve been looking forward to seeing The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou since, officially, March 6, 2004. Today, I finally went and saw it. Huh. Please remember, I loved the first three Wes Anderson movies. Bottle Rocket: perfect small story with kooky but loveable characters and a crazy but believable plot, all with dozens of ridiculous little laugh lines thrown in. Rushmore: Kooky on a grander scale, with a fantastic performance by Bill Murray and such a heartbreakingly unapologetic truly dorktastic kid at the center. The Royal Tenenbaums: probably one of the better screenplays I know of, which has all of its weirdness splayed out over eight hundred different storylines that all, somehow, tie back in to each other in interesting, cuttingly comic ways. And on and on. The direction in TRT was so sharp and interesting — things actually looked like a play in many parts, with the title cards and the book chapter inserts and everything — that I really thought, man, this next movie is going to be freaking brilliant.
But I think I was wrong. Instead of looking sharp and interesting and amazing, The Life Aquatic just came off disjointed and kind of broken. Two things were off here: the direction and the story, and Wes Anderson takes credit for both. I mean, even the humor falls flat, mostly because everything gets cut around too quickly, so there’s never time to savor the sharpest bits that come through (like, for instance, the interns, the gun fight in the speedo, the bizarre little cartoon sea creatures, etc.). Bill Murray is great as this uber-melancholy washed-up sea hero, but instead of really developing that, the movie never really tries to treat it or explain it or build it up or down. I feel so let down, and I don’t know why — before going on a review blackout for the film, I had read that things weren’t looking good for it. Yet it just — at times it barely felt like a movie, more like a clips reel of “good ideas that could go in a movie.” Grr.
I didn’t read any reviews prior to seeing the movie, but Stephen Hunter really caught what I felt in his Washington Post Review (“‘Life Aquatic’: A Comedy That Misses The Boat”). I would argue that it’s not Gene Hackman that’s missing from the film, but instead, perhaps, the Wilson influence on the script (Owen Wilson co-wrote all three other Wes Anderson pictures; this one was co-written with Noah Bambach instead). Anyway, here’s a good closing line from Mr. Hunter: “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” never quite comes together. It’s not merely the sudden shift of tone or the star as the man who never was, it’s that the film seems more an accumulation of moments — many of them hilarious — than a consciously crafted story. At the end of the zany “Royal Tenenbaums” you knew you’d seen something. In this one, you walk out thinking, Now what the hell was that all about?
Capsule review: I paid for my sister’s ticket to go, and if I hadn’t, I’m pretty sure I would have died of guilt for inviting her along.