"What happened? Did I lose my talent? Am I ever going to be good again?" laments Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) in 'Life Aquatic' during an inward-looking moment. Sadly, many critics were wondering the same about writer/director Wes Anderson following his latest (and biggest - this one carried a $50 million pricetag) cinematic venture.
Even more sad, however, is that many of the aforementioned critics just didn't get it. One of the recurring themes in 'Life Aquatic' is that a man who experienced his heyday in the seventies, and who is now still out there, doing what he does, isn't getting the same payback anymore. I guess, in a nutshell, it's the classic mid-life crisis story. His wife is on the verge of leaving him, his fans and financial backers already have, and all he has left to show of his life is an outdated boat and some film footage.
Zissou is a guy who has seen and done it all, and yet now he's reduced to faking, scamming and stealing in order to finance his latest venture, the revenge killing of the (possibly fake) Jaguar Shark (or will it turn out to be real, after all?). He's collected a ragtag troupe of misfits who are each equally backward looking; the best in life has already been, and yet they still blunder on. The scene where Zissou singlehandedly takes the boat back from the group of armed pirates says it all: that is the act of a desperate man, a man with nothing to lose, a man with no future. And his actions are repeated again later at the hotel scene, when he rescues his 'part gay' nemesis (played brilliantly by Jeff Goldblum) - yet this time, his actions infect and infuse his crew, and together they realize that there is still life in them, that life is still worth living. Hence, poor Cody the three-legged dog, gets left behind.
I think Anderson's subtle humour is lost on many people, and if one did not like the brilliant, quirky, and oh-so-droll 'The Royal Tenenbaums' (my personal fave), then one will certainly not enjoy 'Life Aquatic'. Anderson has a core group of actors he uses and re-uses in his movies, and he knows how to get the best performances from them. To see the usually voluble and irrepressible Bill Murray playing an understated, deadpan Zissou just lends the role even more credence.
'Life Aquatic' looks at the world as though one is looking at something underwater - your vision is fine, but the water refracts your perspective. What you think you are seeing is not really as it appears. Likewise with this film - after all, any film that opens with a documentary showing of a nature film at a European film festival is bound to be a little idiosyncratic, a little off-kilter.
'Life Aquatic' pays homage to seventies documentarian Jacques Cousteau - or is it, in fact, lightly mocking him? The use of low-tech, stop motion animation (as opposed to high tech CGI) further reinforces the '70s feel. Likewise, the music (David Bowie tunes played on acoustic guitar and sung in Portuguese) are another subtle reference to a better, simpler time.
The emotionally needy characters suffer from minimalist angst; the irony is so low-key as to seem almost non-existent - and yet, it's there, front and centre. With a wacky plot, an all-star cast, acerbic humour, brilliantly understated acting, existential questions, music by Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo), and non sequitur after non sequitur - what more could one ask for in a film?