In Over His Head

As a filmmaking metaphor, 'The Life Aquatic' is all wet

Near the beginning of Wes Anderson's fourth feature, Bill Murray's down-on-his-luck oceanographer/filmmaker Steve Zissou walks briskly to the bow of his ship, fires up a doobie, and inhales. He has just been told he's a father--of a strapping blond boy, Ned (Owen Wilson), who has a pilot's license and an unreliable Southern accent. Zissou holds still around the smoke; the hand with the cigarette drops to his side in a curving smear of slow motion. I swear I heard a collective sigh rise up from the seats at my screening. Sweet.

A bounty of cool stuff decorates The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: albino dolphins belted with cameras, shots that rock with the waves, seas red with blood. Whether there's anything to chew on beneath that sparkling crust is debatable: How one answers probably depends on one's capacity for self-reflexive white guy pathos--and thematic repetition.

Yeah, Anderson has made yet another movie about the relationship between a boyish man (mannish boy?) and a middle-aged father figure. (And you thought Sofia Coppola had a mother of a daddy thing!) As in Bottle Rocket, the older guy shows the younger one around an occupation; as in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, the charming man who would be dad has some growing up to do himself. Post-smoke, Zissou welcomes Ned, who may or may not be his son, and invites him along on what may be the fading Cousteau-like icon's last voyage. In typical uninvolved dad fashion, he throws Ned a lot of toys (official crew cap, Speedo, and business card--all cool, I tell ya), rechristens him "Kingsley," and avoids questions to which he doesn't want answers. He calls Kingsley his "sidekick," accepts the young man's cash donations, and bends his ears about Zissou troubles past and present; he doesn't really take Ned in--until he gets in the way.

Judged generously, The Life Aquatic marks the end of a cycle or the beginning of another: The loved/hated father-mentor so diabolically enlivened by James Caan in Bottle Rocket is now not nemesis, but protagonist, and the protagonist's nemesis is now the wounded son. In other words, having buried the reformed-misanthropic fucker with forgiveness and a 21 BB-gun salute in The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson is dealing with the fact that, at least metaphorically, he is now the dad. After all, no one with four features under his...er, belt can call himself an apprentice.

Even more than Rushmore, this movie tracks the process, financial and creative, of making commercial art. The first half is an occasionally amusing portrait of the artist as no longer young and promising. The checklist of failure includes the botched shoot, the painful test screening, the awkward festival Q & A, the loss of funding, the flight of producers, the overhead criticism that hurts past reason. (Zissou: "People say when people say [bad things] about you it's because they're jealous. But it hurts, it hurts bad.") Zissou ultimately suffers the indignity of having to bring along a "bond stooge" (Bud Cort, underutilized) to monitor the shoot. One of the more successful running gags here is the casual abuse of interns; presumably Anderson knows of what he writes.

The second half covers the filming of Zissou's underfunded documentary, which is ostensibly focused on the search for the "jaguar shark" that ate Zissou's longtime collaborator Esteban. (In The Life Aquatic, minorities are characterized either as "quirky"--one wears a turban, another sings in Portuguese--or as "dead meat." Either way, they don't talk much.) However, the shark tale gets subsumed, along with the father-son theme, by seemingly random episodes that have to do with burglary, piracy, and the attractive, pregnant journalist (Cate Blanchett, frantically trying to establish some sort of presence beyond "attractive, pregnant journalist") whom both father and son want to bone. (The parts for women here really suck.) I'm not sure if filmmaking is still the meta-subject by this point; if so, it seems being an up-and-coming white boy director is pretty competitive. Gay and foreign language movies are always pirating the grant money--or so we are to assume from events.

Some viewers will find these sketches funny, some won't. I found the swamp leeches stupid and the revolving door exquisite. Either way, The Life Aquatic is not exactly taking itself seriously, not when people--brown people--suddenly start dying to the beat of Bond-movie spy music. It's disconcerting, to say the least, and the hits keep coming. Anderson tends to walk a pretty dicey line in his movies: Almost everything said or done is simultaneously meant and not meant--that is, it's meant to be a joke, sorta. Real emotions are often depicted with some amount of silliness--so that I sometimes feel Anderson might withdraw them at any moment. It's the same way Anderson "gets away" with his characters using racist and/or homophobic phrases like "bull dyke" and "black buck." The words are funny, right? And his (good at heart) characters don't really mean them.

It's tough, however, to shrug off the deaths of characters, anonymous or otherwise. Especially when you want the protagonist to be undergoing some sort of transformative adventure that leaves him finally willing to take responsibility for his actions. The movie itself doesn't accept responsibility. And so all the deep-diving that follows looks to me like so much cool stage dressing. I suspect Anderson knows it, too. After a movie studded with jokey music cues, the credits unfold to "Queen Bitch" by David Bowie. "There's a taste in my mouth," goes the lyric, "and it's no taste at all."

 
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