While it’s still fresh in my mind, and because I want to be an early adopter as far as observations on the Buckaroo Banzai homage go: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
Wes Anderson comes from Houston. That makes Bottle Rocket a small jump, just a skip into the air and thump back down onto the pavement. Rushmore is more ambitious; it’s set in a world far away from Texas. But Wes Anderson did go to a Texan prep school. Not a huge leap. The Royal Tenenbaums? Now we’re talking; sure, it’s still in New York, but it’s further up, further separated from the world in which we live.
The Life Aquatic breaks the bonds of reality and soars.
Or separates; separation is certainly the theme. Steve Zissou and his wife, Steve Zissou and Ned Plimpton, Steve Zissou and the earth. (David Bowie songs and the English language.) People go to the sea, traditionally, to run away; I thought I saw some of that in this movie. It is on the surface an homage to Cousteau, but underneath that, I think Wes Anderson is using the undersea documentary genre as the largest signifier of Zissou’s isolation. Nothing’s more isolated than a submarine underwater.
Some feel that The Life Aquatic is too precious. I think it’s precious on purpose; I think that sense of separation we feel is intentional. It’s a way of getting us into Zissou’s head, aided and abetted by Bill Murray’s quietly ironic acting talent. Besides which, the 70s Merimekko aesthetic is beautiful. The only misstep is towards the end; there’s a scene in which Zissou learns something about forgiveness, as a result of which he learns something about the human touch. Sadly, it’s not quite enough to get us through the wall, perhaps because it’s set underwater.
On the other hand, the final homage to Buckaroo Banzai helps make the point. For a moment or two I was considering the entire movie as a remake of Buckaroo Banzai, but that’s wrong: the homage is a moment of contrast. The Hong Kong Cavaliers were a family in a way that Team Zissou was not through most of the movie. It’s not a key moment in the movie, but it’s a telling grace note.
Speaking of families, the movie is not the ensemble piece that The Royal Tenenbaums was. It’s a movie about Steve Zissou learning to — something. Not feel, not care about other people. Learning to express those things, perhaps. Learning to act on them? I think that last. So while all the supporting cast is great, it’s not their story. Jane Winslett-Richardson doesn’t get a resolution. I didn’t feel that was a flaw, mind you, I’d just hate for anyone to get their hopes up for the kind of complex interweave we’ve seen from Anderson elsewhere. It’s a different kind of movie, more an heir to Rushmore.
I had been feeling a little worried that the American magic realism directors were losing their touch, given that I thought Adaptation, I ♥ Huckabees, and Punch-Drunk Love were somewhat disappointing. (Not bad, but disappointing.) I am now reassured.