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The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Reviewed by Dave Heaton

There's something fascinating about the undersea world - think of photos and drawings of the bizarre creatures that lurk deep underwater, or the mystery that comes with the vastness of an ocean. That fascination sort of drives the character of Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), an oceanographer/filmmaker in the mold of Jacques Cousteau, in the Wes Anderson-directed film The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Or at least it seems like that interest is what once drove him; when we meet him he's bitter, cranky, and somewhat of a fraud.

That fascination definitely drives Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), who joins Zissou's crew in part because he's decided that he might be Zissou's son. But more than awe at the sea, Ned seems awed by Zissou himself, and by the grand adventure tales that he represents. The rest of Zissou's crew seem like they once had the enthusiasm of Ned but now are just doing what comes natural to them, maybe more cynically then they used to.

The Life Aquatic itself is one of those grand adventure tales, but a ragged one - it's like an alternate version of a kid's adventure tale, one where the heroes are revealed to be the flawed, complicated human beings that they really are, and each step in their journey is more likely to go wrong than right. The impetus for the voyage they take during the bulk of the film was the death of Zissou's right-hand man Esteban (Seymour Cassel), at the hands of the mythic jaguar shark - lurking behind all of the film's events are thus sorrow (though, truth be told, not necesarily or only sorrow about Esteban's death; more like general feelings of sadness, confusion and pain which each character has different reasons for having) and imagination, the ways that the unknown can be exciting and life-affirming.

The "adventure tale" aspect of The Life Aquatic resonates through the otherworldliness of the film, driven by its look (with bright colors and obviously man-made setpieces), its special effects (the way the mysterious sea creatures are animated), and its music (including uniquely resonant Portuguese-language covers of David Bowie songs, quirky electronic instrumentals by Mark Mothersbaugh, and a perfectly placed Sigur Ros song). The otherworldly atmosphere coincides with the plot in compelling ways. These are people escaping from the pain of real life by engaging in fantasy - the film suggests we're doing much the same. At the same time, the fable told in The Life Aquatic has a hard edge to it, with death and pain existing as real tangible forces.

The Life Aquatic is also a very funny movie, courtesy of both the script, by Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming, Mr. Jealousy), and the acting from the accomplished cast (not just Murray and Wilson, but also Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Bud Cort, and others). The humor can't be under-estimated in my enjoyment of the film. The essence of humor (why someone finds something humor) is hard to pin down or explain in a review, but I found the film to be laugh-out-loud funny in places, even if it doesn't feel as overtly aimed to be so as some of Anderson's other films. The Life Aquatic's overall success comes from the way all of these pieces fit together. It's the way the humor and the pain fit together, the way the fantastical look and mood of the film intersect with the 'child's fable aspect of it. Ultimately the film is a silly and imaginative adventure story that also tackles head-on the ways that those stories work to handle and hide painful feelings inside all of us.

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