Wes Anderson and his films have been variously described as “quirky,” “idiosyncratic,” “precious,” and as filled with “terminal whimsy.” In his earlier films, especially The Royal Tennenbaums, I’ve enjoyed Anderson’s playful style, his meticuolous attention to set design. Many critics have noted that Anderson’s films function more as giant “doll houses” more than carefully plotted narratives, an observation that is perhaps most evident in the arrested development of the Tennenbaum mansion and the Max’s set models in Rushmore. Further, as David Edelstein points out, in many of Anderson’s films, “there’s a tension between the person and the persona,” whether the flawed “family of geniuses” in the Tennenbaums or the aspiring crime geniuses in Bottle Rocket.
His latest film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (IMDB), indulges many of these tendencies. In fact, Zissou, in my reading, seems even more whimsical and less carefully paced than many of Anderson’s earlier films. Zissou focuses on the ocean explorer Steve Zissou (Murray), a Jacques Cousteau figure whose films are receiving less attention (and popularity) as their narratives lose any suspense and romance. The film opens at an Italian debut of one of his latest films (in a familar Anderson trope of showing a film or play audience), and it’s clear that the audience is bored by the film, their questions polite rather than curious. But when Zissou’s closest friend and assistant is killed by a “jaguar shark,” he vows revenge, plotting to pursue the shark and kill it a la Captain Ahab. At the screening, Zissou meets Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a Kentucky pilot who claims to be his son. This claim is never confirmed, but the two lonely people attempt to connect, with Zissou inviting Ned to join his crew.
Like other Anderson films, the tension between person and persona is played out narratively and through set design. Zissou’s pretensions as an undersea explorer are conveyed as much by his red sea cap, his ship’s flag, and his blue uniform. In one of the film’s best shots, the camera glides from room to room in the ship, revealing much about how Zissou (and the rest of the film’s characters) wish to see themselves. But once the film established this tension, I was never quite sure how it wanted to address it. There are several moments in which the film seems to want to parody the documentary form, to convey the ways in which “reality” in a documentary is constructed, but Anderson seems to abandon that question towards the end of the film.
Visually, Anderson’s films continue to fascinate, and the “undersea adventure” parody gives Anderson’s vivid visual imagination room to play. He still offers characters who confront the difficult realization that they may not be able to live up to their celebrity image. Like The Royal Tennenbaums, especially, Zissou seems to exist in a temporally muddled alternate reality, with characters appearing slightly out of place. In Tennenbuams, this approach is clear. Anderson explicitly masked all references to contemporary New York City, using actors’ bodies to block out shots that would normally include the Statue of Liberty (for example).
In Zissou, the bright reds and garish yellows of Zissou’s uniform and the fan club insignia ring that Ned dutifully wears make the film appear to take place in a slightly different present than our own. This sense of an “alternate present” is conveyed in part musically, with the crew member (Seu George) who sings David Bowie songs in Portguese. I’m not quite sure how to bring these observations together into a fully coherent reading. Like Roger Ebert, I’m finding it difficult to “recommend” the film, but I’m not sure that’s the point of writing about a film, anyway. I do think that Anderson’s narrative becomes muddled towards the end, but the film seems more interesting to me this morning than it did last night.