"The Life Aquatic" preview review

Director Wes Anderson continues a progression toward oversized casts and abstracted storylines, with middling results.

At least the test preview of "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" I attended last week did. "Rushmore" used theater as a visual theme; "The Royal Tennenbaums" used books. This film uses film itself as a touchstone, as much of "The Life Aquatic" follows Zissou's attempt to make the second half of his most controversial sea-going nature film yet.

The townhouse in "Tennenbaums" is replaced by Zissou's ship, the Belafonte. As with the townhouse, the ship is the stage for much of the film, and provides much of the mood that radically colors the otherwise flat acting and neutral lensing. One of the most effective sequences of the film features Murray addressing the camera as he narrates a sweeping, god's-eye tour of the ship's quarters. Cut in half, the ship looks like a doll's house, even as it crawls with its awkward, energetic crew. Yes, they have an observation deck, sauna and complete film lab that "processes all of our rushes."

The soundtrack may or may not have been finished when I saw the film. That being said, the music was characteristic of Anderson with some indications of creative growth. Zissou's predilection for cheap synth techno as accompaniment for his undersea excursions is wonderfully rendered by Mark Mothersbaugh. Pop selections have again been made in partnership with music supervisor Randall Poster. New Order, Sigur Rós and Radiohead join more predictable selections from David Bowie to form a darker, noisier tapestry that is occasionally in danger of smothering the fun. [For the odds makers: "Ceremony," "Agætis Byrjun" and "Everything In Its Right Place" respectively.]

The preview version was overlong, most critically in the first third. The opening sequence, a premiere of Zissou's latest film in Italy, is followed by a colliding and cacophonous twenty minute introduction to all of the film's players, including Michael Gambon as Zissou's producer, Owen Wilson as a pilot for "Kentucky Airlines" and a childhood Zissou fan, Anjelica Huston as Zissou's disinterested wife, Willem Dafoe as his nervous dive engineer and Jeff Goldblum as a well-financed rival and ex-husband to Zissou's wife. Add to this Cate Blanchett as a nervous, pregnant journalist who is writing a profile of Zissou, a coterie of nameless interns, an indefatigable film crew and a topless script girl. The result is often a quite crowded frame.

As with other Anderson films, there is a charming focus on the intimacy of human communication over distance: handwritten letters on the tasteful "correspondence stock" that is always printed for new members of the crew, heartfelt conversations with ex-lovers' answering machines via the ship-to-shore radio and a neatly bundled set of pre-addressed envelopes that one character presents to his love. As with "Rushmore," these delicacies are balanced with action scenes that occasionally break free with wild visual fun. But these sequences, such as a pirate attack and a subsequent island rescue, play too long and are surprisingly violent. One hopes that further cutting will bring these brittle sequences down to a scale similar to the "wizard" battle in Rushmore: more of a palette cleaner than a major course.

In this film, Anderson continues to examine the theme of faded glory, and what it does to those who endure its passing. Zissou is apparently tired and while he is searching for a never-before-seen shark (by anyone other than Zissou and his right-hand man, who was consumed by the beast) one gets the sense that Zissou is unable even to find himself among his chaotic crew and their misadventures. Sadly, the scope of the film is too wide to efficiently capture this in detail. The script is too busy saving minor characters from pirates and stealing cappuccino machines from rival research platforms to provide much substance on the twin acts of searching that aspire to dominate the dramatic action: that of Zissou for the shark (or himself) and of Owen Wilson for his father, who may or may not be Zissou.

This idea of documentation, whether it be by Zissou of the shark, of Zissou by Blanchett or of his unknown father by Wilson, is a rich one. Sadly, it is undermined. "I read that in an article about me," Zissou confesses at one point. We get the sense that the legendary explorer and filmmaker is no more than a legend formed by film, time and magazine articles. Like Seargant Welsh in "The Thin Red Line," he only gets lonely when he's around other people. Zissou is so surrounded—by his crew, his family and his barnacled boat's accrual—it is easy to see a perhaps better film in a more spare presentation.

I suspect these ideas of searching, documentation, paternity, legend and objective truth were the ingredients of a recipe for the signature melancholy of Anderson's films. But the recipe doesn't work. We never feel for the characters or see our own lives in their extraordinary ones. We are too distracted by the technical details of Wilson's past, the possibility that Zissou fabricated the shark sightings and the curiously tame rivalry with Goldblum to have a moment alone on the sea.

And what about the sea? I assumed it would play a key role in the mood of the film, but Anderson zips past that largely unseen force. The imaginative and startling creature animations and pleasantly cartoony seascapes delight the eye but skew the scope of Zissou?s journey into a delicate and lithe amusement. Anderson jumps from here to there, from this situation to that with the convenience of a subway ride. We could just as well be at the 375th St. Y. The script girl warns Zissou when they head into ?unprotected waters? but the ship?s travel feels spaceless, meaningless. It's wonderful to see Bill Murray with a full beard, wetsuit-clad, leading a spear gun attack with Casio techno music accompaniment. This may be reason enough to see the film. But the boat is crowded, the sea is crowded, the story is crowded and the script crowded with vestigial plot lines that would benefit from a bit more evolution. The final scene is crowded, in a comic way I think Anderson did not intend.

In a flashback, Zissou responds to a childhood letter of Owen Wilson's with a boilerplate note which, the photographed letter reads, was "Dictated, but not read." This film, at least in the state I saw it, smacked of missed opportunities, flattened jokes, and unnecessary structural indulgences that a more careful reading would have avoided.

Posted December 18, 2004.

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