The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go on an overnight drunk, and in 10 days I’m going to set out to find the shark that ate my friend and destroy it. Anyone who wants to tag along is more than welcome.”

Have you ever thought something was great even when a lot of people disagreed with you? That’s how I feel about The Life Aquatic, directed by Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Fantastic Mr. Fox) and starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Anjelica Huston. According to movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, this is the lowest-scored film on my list with a score of just 56%. Critics called it smug, ironic, and artificial. This is actually my favorite Wes Anderson movie—and that’s saying a lot, as he’s my favorite director. Whether it’s a guilty pleasure or an underrated gem, I found much to love in this dark, irreverent comedy.

The plot focuses on Steve Zissou, a washed up marine documentary maker reminiscent of Jacques Cousteau, as he deals with his waning popularity. Still reeling from the loss of his partner, he meets a man who may or may not be his son, whom he has never talked to. As he struggles to make one last great documentary, he also struggles with being a father for the first time. He has to come to grips with his struggle to be authentic and maintain human relationships as he pursues his other goals.

I hate fathers, and I never wanted to be one.

This movie is highly stylized to the point of being almost like a cartoon, separating it from real life, and that has been one of the chief complaints about the movie. I found the style to be a brilliant metaphor for Zissou’s own public life, which he’s worked very hard to separate from his real inner life and emotions. Most of the movie seems like a caricature of real life, and characters in the movie actually complain that it seems fake at times. It’s no surprise that the most realistic and human moments of the film come when the cameras are off Zissou and he reacts naturally, which are a sharp contrast to the comically artificial scenes from the rest of the movie. With the style imbued with meaning and purpose, I found it to be charming and entertaining, although others may disagree.

Jane interviews Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic
The shiny persona he exhibits when on camera slowly crumbles throughout the film as events occur that require the attention of the real Steve Zissou.

At the heart of the comedy and larger-than-life styling is a sad old man trying to cope with the fact that he’s never achieved what he wanted to achieve in life. He’s angry at this sudden realization, and the jaguar shark he hunts becomes a metaphor for everything he’s never achieved in life. It’s his white whale, his Godot. When he finally confronts this shark at the end of the movie, we see some of the greatest character development in the movie. It’s a beautiful moment, moving and sad, and understanding that moment is the crux of the film.

I think it’s a cop-out to say that negative reviewers just don’t “get” the film. The metaphors may be buried a bit too deeply in this film for its own good; and without a clear view of the metaphors, it can appear that this film is more style than substance. Still, as I said, this is one of my all-time favorite films. It’s very funny, delightfully quirky, and absolutely unique. If that sounds interesting and you like the Wes Anderson style, you will love this movie.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 1:58
Director: Wes Anderson
Year: 2004
Genres: comedy
Rating: R

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