My first experience with Wes Anderson was "The Royal Tennebaums", I didn't finish it but I don't think I was watching it with the right person, let's just put it that way: my buddy and me were staring at the screen exactly like Wes Anderson's usual characters, which isn't a good thing. And I guess I wasn't in much a demand for sophisticated humor at that particular phase of my life. I still have to watch the film though.
My second experience was "Grand Budapest Hotel", I didn't like it the first time. I loved it the second. All it took was to understand Wes Anderson's personal approach to film-making and the way he took style rather as an end than a mean, somewhat reaching more genuine truths than conventional dramas or just making fabulously entertaining movies. I took it that it took a special gourmet taste to savor his films and the next two discoveries didn't break the streak of enjoyment.
So I loved "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and I loved "Moonrise Kingdom". And I kept waiting for the one movie where Bill Murray would finally have a leading role. The film was "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou", whose poster looked like a very promising take on classic documentary "The World of Silence" with Commandant Cousteau (Zissou wears the same trademark red cap). I expected a lot of beautiful shots, a lot of laughs no matter the facial expression on Bill Murray's face, I expected a lot of good things. "Moonrise Kingdom" had alerted me that Anderson, like Harold Ramis and Sofia Coppola was the kind of privileged director who'd "understood" Bill Murray, but not at the expenses of our understanding.
Indeed, for some reason, and despite a terrific set-up, I had a déjà vu with this film. It felt like my first experience with "Tennenbaum" (and now, you know why I had to write with this lengthy introduction). Unless I was mislead about the film, I thought there would be something passionate about Zissou, or at least, in his Melvillian relationship with the jaguar-shark who ate (even chewed) his first mate Esteban. I know, Bill Murray, tongue-in-cheek, snarky, deadpan humor and so on
No problem with that, but it seemed like there was no moment whatsoever where Zissou could actually be seen enjoying anything.
There were some outbursts of violence and emotions and I was waiting for genuine reactions like his fatherly anger when his supposed son gets punched in the face by a group of hijackers, but overall, the film played like a series of set-ups for hilarious situations with downer conclusions. It's a comedy drama but I wonder why Anderson ever invested in the comedic element since he never really bring much fun to the screen except for a few chuckles in the middle of some existential contemplation.
The film had them all, Bill Murray could have played the role of a lifetime just one year after his great performance in "Lost in Translation" but in Coppola's film, we could identify the roots of Bob's melancholy and his brief moments of happiness provided the little zest without which the film would have felt pretty bland. That "Zissou" story had like ten characters as "lost in translation" as Zissou himself, a malcontent wife played by Anjelica Huston, a frustrated and envious first mate played by Willem Dafoe, a number one fan of Zissou who believe he might be Zissou's son, and played by Owen Wilson.
There's also Cate Blanchett who's probably trying to break her 'Elizabeth" image and have a hip comedic role with a trendy director for a change. It would work better with Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine". And Jeff Goldblum is a pedant, gay and condescending oceanographer named Hennessy, he's supposed to be Zissou's nemesis, he's more like an alter-ego in a film that becomes like an oddball contest, which is fine in a "Grand Budapest Hotel" kind of plot, but not quite this time.The film doesn't even trust the initial premise with the jaguar shark, it involves a series of hijacking, assaults, accidents, but we never really get a clear idea of where this is going anyway.
Don't get me wrong, "Life Aquatic" looks great, the script is full of one liners and the actors are all talented, but they don't seem to be really playing their roles as if the story mattered anyway, maybe Owen Wilson is the most emotionally engaging and so is Willem Defoe but the others were too estranged to us to let any specific feeling unfold. And for some reason, with the story of the eaten friend, and the possible father-and-son relationship, there's never a moment where Wes Anderson tries to get conventional a little for the sake of emotions. In fact, Anderson ever seems to despise emotions, a symptom that thankfully didn't affect "Moonrise Kingdom".
There's some interesting self-referential approach when Zissou considers the possibility of a relationship subplot in the film because he's got great chemistry with his son, but it's like Anderson was trying to keep this as fake as possible as a defensive move, as if he didn't want to surrender to some corny conventional-ism typical of Hollywood, by doing so, he might have deprived the film from what could have been the emotional core behind the laughs. Just because Murray isn't a man of emotions, doesn't make him emotionless.
Anyway, it all comes down to this: I think the story deserves a 6 for the wasted potential, but I can't get past how beautiful some shots look, so I'll give it a 7. Not that the rating matters anyway.