Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Film Review - 'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou'

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a difficult film to get a proper handle on - which, naturally enough, makes it difficult to know where to begin when it comes to writing a review.

Obviously, it's a strange film - but, it is also one that seems almost wilfully so. It is the sort of film that clearly seems to revel in its own absurdities, and is content to challenge the audience to either accept them, or move on to something else. At the same time, though, so much of what makes this film so odd can feel somewhat unnecessary - or, even forced. It is as though the desire to make the film 'quirky' might have gone to director Wes Anderson's head.

It is a comedy, nominally - but, it is one that is rarely 'laugh out loud' funny. In general, the film clearly prefers to go for a quieter, and more subtle, form of humour that is only really ever likely to raise the occasional chuckle. There are elements of more serious character driven drama, too - but, much like the film itself, the character's are often wilfully quirky and difficult to get a proper handle on.

It is a, quite simply, refuses to make things easy for its audience in a variety of ways - and, it is easy to see why reaction to the film might have been mixed.

At the heart of the film is Steve Zissou (Bill Murray). Once a respected oceanographer, and the driving force behind a series of highly popular documentaries, Steve Zissou's popularity has been on a study decline for the past few years. His most recent films have been increasingly disappointing. His latest, in which his closest friend is apparently killed by a mysterious 'jaguar shark', has been met with bemused skepticism by the audience. With no actual footage of the incident, or proof that the animal in question even exists, the audience is left to assume that the whole thing is little more than a bizarre publicity stunt.

Steve is adamant, though. He is determined to set out on another expedition to track down the jaguar shark that killed his closest friend, and kill it. With dynamite. Obviously.

Of course, since no one believes that the creature actually exists, Steve is unable to secure the funding that he needs for his latest voyage. His wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), who is believed to be the true brains behind 'Team Zissou', also wants nothing to do with him, or his latest expedition. Fortunately, Steve meets Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a young man who may or may not be Steve's biological son. Ned has the money necessary to finance this latest film adventure, and he is willing to invest. So, the quest for the mysterious 'jaguar shark' is able to go ahead, after all. Joining 'Team Zissou' for the expedition is British journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), who is researching an article on Steve Zissou. And, also, a 'bond company stooge' (Bud Cort) hired by Steve's producer and sent along to keep track of the crew's finances.

Things aren't that easy for 'Team Zissou', though - as their expedition is quickly interrupted by an attack by Indonesian pirates, and their 'bond company stooge' is taken hostage. So, the expedition needs to be put on hold as 'Team Zissou' is required to first go on a rescue mission.

On its own, none of this sounds like anything too strange. It may even bring to mind elements of a modernised, and re-imagined, Moby Dick. There certainly isn't anything in that description that would justify the odd tangent I opened this review on, at least.

But, then, you have the fact that any scene featuring sea-life has them animated in stop-motion by Henry Selick, for no readily apparent reason - something which gives the film a layer the surreal over what should have been a fairly standard comedy/adventure. Then, there's also Steve's sudden, and potentially jarring, shift into action hero status, following the just as sudden attack by Indonesian pirates. On top of that, too, there are the frequent, and entirely random, cut-aways to Brazilian musician Seu Jorge and is Portuguese cover version of well-known David Bowie songs - once again, for no readily apparent reason.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a film that seems to deliberately chase after that 'quirky' label with just about every scene - going after it with a single-minded determination that could easily be off-putting. For me, at least, all of this essentially superficial strangeness did give the film a peculiar sort of charm. It also doesn't hurt that, buried beneath this layer of the absurd, are moments of much more traditional character-driven story-telling. Watching this cast of eccentric characters stumbling their way toward forming meaningful connections with each other is often genuinely touching.

Steve Zissou, himself, is a particularly fascination figure. He is a tired and worn-down man - someone who is clearly struggling with maintaining any sense of purpose in the face of increasing ridicule from people who once seemed to admire him.

He is also, admittedly, a bit of a prick.

For Steve Zissou, the quest to find the 'jaguar shark' is a very traditional tale of rediscovering the sense of meaning and purpose that he has lost. Watching this gradual process take place was the primary appeal of the film to me - and, it also doesn't hurt that Bill Murray gives a genuinely great performance, here. To be fair, though, Bill Murry is an actor I have always found to be very watchable - so, there might be an element of my own personal bias at work, here.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou wont be a film for everyone. Its almost desperate attempt to appear 'quirky' and 'strange' could potentially border on annoying, if you have no tolerance for that sort of thing. But, it is also a film which is often subtly funny (if never outright hilarious), occasionally sad, and ultimately genuinely touching. It is a film that I am very much willing to recommend - though, perhaps, with the necessary proviso that you be aware of what you are about to watch.

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