The first film by Wes Anderson that came onto my radar was 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Two of my best friends sought it out in the movie theater and fell in love with it. I wasn't part of this excursion, but I was witness to their constant discussion of the film. Perhaps because of my unintentional exclusion from their shared experience, I immediately developed an irrational rejection of anything related to Anderson. When I finally saw my first film by the director, 2007's The Darjeeling Limited, all of my prejudices were confirmed: this guy makes quirky films for quirk's sake, and I want nothing to do with him. I was too busy being overtly into dark, difficult movies like There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men to be bothered with the arch dialogue and symmetrical framing of a hack like Anderson. That wasn't real cinema, I thought.
By the time 2009 rolled around, I had cooled a bit on my massively pretentious and narrow interest in super-serious cinema, so I was in a position to be delighted by Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox, as well as his subsequent features, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. I even returned to what turned out to be the Criterion Collection DVD I ever owned, The Royal Tenenbaums, a disc purchased for me as a gift by my older brother that I viewed and neglected during my period of Anderson hate. On a whim, I have since purchased every film in the Collection directed by Anderson on Blu-ray, and have watched them all, ending my twelve-year odyssey through adolescent antipathy to adult adulation with The Life Aquatic.
I'd heard mixed things about the film, even from one of the aforementioned friends, who warned me that the movie is quite divisive, even among Anderson fans. I've heard the phrase, "It left me cold," when referring to Life Aquatic, and I have to report that I just don't understand why people are so against this movie. I don't believe The Life Aquatic to be a masterpiece, nor is it Anderson's worst film (that is still Darjeeling Limited, but I've yet to revisit it in nearly nine years). he Life Aquatic is certainly among the stranger and unruly of Anderson's films, tending to abandon its central premise in favor of plot threads that either lead nowhere or have no bearing on the main story. It is burdened with a mess of characters, most of whom receive little to no characterization beyond their physical presence. Steve Zissou himself is easily one of the most unlikable of Anderson's protagonists, and his narrative is one of extreme melancholy and despair. Despite the pastel colors Anderson and his cinematographer, Robert Yeoman, favor, this is a dark film, indeed.
Yet I also highly recommend you seek it out, for the very fact of its messiness, because it makes it unique among Anderson's films. None of them are particularly plot-driven, but few are quite as detailed in their production design, character quirks or bits of dialogue. We understand Zissou to be one of the rogue's gallery of Andersonian protagonists not because he declares anything that particularly connects himself to them, but because he is the sort of man to order one of his lackeys to make him a latte in the middle of a heist that has already gone south. It's also unique because it is one of the few films in the director's work that has a true main character. Like I said earlier, there are a huge amount of people revolving in Zissou's orbit, but none of them hold a candle to the presence Bill Murray brings to the role; he is the Sun, and they are merely planets.
The film's script, co-written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, is perhaps the weakest among Anderson's work. There are plenty of laugh lines, but they often sour, particularly due to the fact that Zissou is given to saying rough phrases like, "slick faggot" and "bull dyke." Zissou's homophobia is irrelevant to the story and the rest of his character, other than in the way that they demonstrate his insecurity in the face of more self-possessed characters, like the ones played by Jeff Goldblum and Cate Blanchett. But it is in the casting that the screenplay makes up for its flaws. We also get Anderson standby Owen Wilson, as well as Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston, Michael Gambon and even Harold and Maude's Bud Cort, in a small but pivotal role. Anderson is casting for star power and iconography here, as opposed to particular acting styles, which compensate when the narrative begins to drag.
The film also fills in its gaps of storytelling with its music, most of which is provided either by David Bowie on the soundtrack, or diegetically by Seu Jorge, a Brazilian musician you may remember from City of God as Knockout Ned. Jorge plays Portuguese renditions of Bowie songs, typically after the original versions play in the background, lending a further layer of whimsy to mask the film's dense sadness. Anderson found out early on in his career that music can be extremely valuable to him, as it is here, because Murray's deadpan approach has a distinctly morose bent to it. Fortunately, he is no Captain Ahab. He sets out on his journey for a similar reason, with that being the only thing for him left to live for, but he gains several more along the way, like a potential long-lost son, or a rekindled romance with his estranged wife. Anderson deep dives into artful ennui more than he had ever in his career before, but he never drowns in it.