Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Comedy is subjective, but to generate laughs, a story, I think, needs to have something recognizable to it. Sure the characters and situations can be bizarre, exaggerated, or wacky, but there has to be something to relate to. Otherwise, it's just weird behavior.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), directed by Wes Anderson, is one of the oddest movies I've ever seen. Sure, the plot strands are familiar and easy to describe: the son looking to connect with his father, the reporter seeking her story, the sea dog pursuing a shark, the tension between a husband and wife, a boat crew staging a mutiny, pirates. However, while those might describe what happens in the movie, they don't begin to capture just how weird everything is. The characters cannot be mistaken for real human beings, and the tone is an alliance between deadpan and cartoon surreal. Yet, despite what I said in the first paragraph about comedy needing some grounding in the familiar to work, I found myself quite enjoying The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

Following the premiere of his most recent documentary, on-the-decline oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) resolves to return to sea to hunt the creature that killed his best friend and partner Esteban: the Jaguar Shark, which might not even exist. Before he sets out, Zissou is joined by Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a pilot with Kentucky Airlines who may or may not be Zissou's son. Also joining the expedition is Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), probably the last reporter interested in doing a story about Zissou. Complications arise when Zissou and Ned both develop a thing for Jane, even as Ned tries to connect with his (possible) father.

The success of other Bill Murray movies usually relied on his deadpan, his being slightly outside of the material and hurling snark at it. As Sigourey Weaver put it in Ghostbusters, he doesn't act like a scientist, more like a "game show host." There's also Stripes, in which he heckles basic training as he goes through it, and there's Groundhog Day, literally a man outside of time free to observe those stuck in the same roles. In Life Aquatic, Murray is just as blank and deadpan as he's ever been; the difference is that the world around him and the other characters are just as detached and deadpan as he is. Understatement and under-reaction are the name of the game.

Zissou's crew is a cross between a filmmaking crew, a hippy compound, and a cult. Everyone in it is a little nutty. When they join, members receive matching blue uniforms, red beanies (which they wear at all times, whether on deck, on a rescue mission, or at a movie screening), and speedos and apparently are required to live on the island Zissou and his wife Eleanor (Angelica Huston) own. Among the people who turn up in Zissou's life are Klaus (Willem Dafoe), the German second-in-command who resents Ned's presence; Bill (Bud Cort), the "bond company stooge;" producer Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon); Pelé dos Santos (Seu Jorge), who plays Portuguese versions of David Bowie songs on his acoustic guitar; Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), Steve's "part-gay" rival and Eleanor's ex-husband; and a group of unpaid interns who work for course credit (when they mutiny, Zissou says he has to give them incompletes).

Like I said above, this is a weird movie, and I suppose there's something of a learning curve to it. It takes a little while to get going and acclimated to the oddness of everyone on screen, but once you get absorbed by it, it becomes funny. I guess once you come to understand Zissou and company, their little quirks become familiar instead of baffling. The movie, in its own way, is charming in the way it depicts how all these assorted individuals interact with each other.

The movie is also at times rather beautiful and stunning in its own way. Henry Selick (the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas) contributes some colorful animation of the different sea life Zissou's crew encounters. While not photo-realistic in any sense, the style fits with the film and is enjoyable simply to behold. There's one sequence near the end, when Zissou and his fellows venture out in a sub to seek the Jaguar Shark, that achieves a sense of awe and joy.

Anderson direction is much like his characters: quirky. Even if you were to subtract Selick's animation, the movie has the feel of a surreal cartoon. It incorporates everything from pseudo-documentary footage to animation, the entire spectrum from realism to artificiality, and yet the film has an identity of its own. Storylines and subplots flow from one to the other without any sense of urgency or narrative, and Anderson likes to hover amusing asides and details. I can't say this is a movie for everyone, but if you can appreciate the bizarre, you might get something out of it.

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