I love Wes Anderson’s movies. Somewhere recently (sorry, I forget the source; such is the point-and-click nature of Web surfing), I read the observation that he makes storybooks for adults. That idea has a lot of relevance when you look at “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” as well as Anderson’s previous film, “The Royal Tenenbaums:” The use of primary colors that pop off the screen, the highly-stylized sets and props, and, in this film, the use of stop-motion sea creatures that fit the mood perfectly. Even Mark Mothersbaugh’s scores evoke the right feel.
On the adult side of the equation, both films feature deeply flawed family patriarchs trying to hold onto the last shreds of their dignity as they struggle with the realization that their best years are behind them. Bill Murray’s Steve Zissou, a comic book version of Jacques Cousteau, isn’t as rotten as Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum, but both of them have no clue how to handle their deteriorating marriages nor the friction between them and other family members.
The film’s plot revolves around Steve’s burning desire to exact revenge on the jaguar shark, which killed his best friend while he was filming his latest documentary. A former celebrity whose current situation is reflected in the dilapidated state of his ship, the Belafonte, Steve believes that the documentary of this mission will bring him back to his former glory. Complicating matters are the sudden appearances of Ned Plimpton, who claims to be his son, and Jane Winslett-Richardson, a pregnant reporter assigned to cover the expedition.
Steve isn’t sure if Ned is really his son, but he’s willing to bring him along anyway (the fact that Ned has $270,000 to put toward the cash-strapped project doesn’t hurt). Meanwhile, he grows concerned that the article Jane is writing will be more scathing than he originally thought, which doesn’t stop him from becoming attracted to her. On top of all that, his wife leaves him for his arch-rival, Alistair Hennessey, whose ship is outfitted with the best technology available. Steve plunges ahead, however, dealing with pirates who kidnap the bond company stooge sent to monitor the production and gathering supplies any way he can, even if it means breaking into Hennessey’s sea laboratory when he’s not there.
Steve’s crew is a deliciously hilarious group of misfits, from Willem Dafoe’s easily offended Klaus Daimler to Robyn Cohen’s topless Anne-Marie Sakowitz to a crew of college interns who are given incompletes when all but one mutinies to Seu Jorge’s nonplussed Pele dos Santos, whose Portuguese renditions of David Bowie songs could serve as a type of Greek chorus, if one bothers to hunt down the English lyrics and figure out if they’re really commenting on the action. I admit I didn’t, so the whole Greek chorus idea could very well be something Anderson threw in there just to see if pretentious film critics would use it to show that they remember something from high school English.
Like Anderson’s last film, “Life Aquatic” is a Criterion Collection release. For just a couple bucks more, I’d recommend the two-disc version. Disc one features “Starz on the Set,” an EPK-style Starz Channel piece that’s worth watching. It also includes ten deleted scenes, which are actually just brief trims from existing scenes, a theatrical trailer, and an audio commentary by Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach. I don’t know if either Anderson or Baumbach have the ability to ever be serious about their work: the commentary was recorded in the restaurant where they wrote the movie, and for whatever reason, many of the names mentioned during it are bleeped out. Both of them offer up plenty of bits of trivia and production anecdotes, but they refrain from getting into any discussions of theme or story structure. At one point, Anderson even asks: “I wonder why we have David Bowie songs in the movie?” and Baumbach notes that they originally wanted to use Steve Miller.
On disc two, Anderson and Baumbach’s irreverent style carries over to “Mondo Monda,” a mock Italian talk show starring the film festival director from the movie. (According to Anderson in the commentary, he’s actually an NYU film school professor who’s a friend of his.) Host Antonio Monda fires off odd-ball questions in Italian, sometimes translating them into English and other times not bothering, as Anderson and Baumbach adopt confused looks and try to figure out, for example, how their belief or disbelief in God is relevant to the subject matter. There are sub-titles, but, of course, they’re in Italian. It’s a funny bit that looks like it fell out of a Betamax circa 1978.
Disc two also offers up a couple galleries of behind-the-scenes photos and production designs, as well as seven micro-featurettes that run between five and ten minutes each and cover different aspects of the making of the film and the characters Ned, Jane and Esteban. The 51-minute “This is an Adventure” captures plenty of behind-the-scenes footage but doesn’t offer any interviews or voice-over narration; it’s an interesting look at Anderson’s working style, which is very engaging and yet casual, even though he’s working with such an accomplished cast. There’s also the amusing 15-minute “The Intern Journal,” which was shot by Matthew Gray Gubler, who plays Intern #1. It’s a fun piece.
In addition, you can watch ten videos of Seu Jorge playing his David Bowie tunes, which he translated himself, and check out a cool 19-minute featurette about ex-Devo member Mothersbaugh, an accomplished film score composer who has been working with Anderson since “Bottle Rocket.” I admit I’m the type of movie watcher who appreciates a good score but doesn’t really think about it as much as I consider the visuals, the acting and the story. Mothersbaugh does a great job of explaining the feel he went for in each of Anderson’s films and how he convinced the director to expand the musical repertoire for “The Life Aquatic.”
Finally, in this day of non-existent DVD case inserts, Criterion has graciously included a nice fold-out that includes an interview with Anderson and his brother Eric, an artist who did a lot of work on the director’s last two movies. Unsurprisingly, Eric’s drawings, which are used on the DVD case itself (which I like a lot more than the cardboard sleeve over it) and in the insert and the DVD menus, help hammer home that storybook feel.
Another Wes Anderson film, another home run. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.