The manner and gestures, the cadence and actions of Steve Zissou are so ineradicably Murray, one must wonder if Anderson long ago found a portal into the great comedic actor’s head and has regularly set up camp in there. A treat to read as a screenplay, even without the drawings of the filmmaker’s brother Eric Chase Anderson (a popular feature of Anderson’s last two films released on DVD through the Criterion Collection), “The Life Aquatic” should become one of the better films of 2004.
(Writer’s Note: While I have gone into detail concerning the first act of the film, I have left the second and third act of the movies completely unmentioned in this review.)
The film opens inside an immense movie palace not unlike the Grand Palais in Cannes, where the black tie crowd is taking their seats. We are at the Loquasto Film Festival (possibly named in an affectionate nod to Santo Loquasto, Woody Allen’s longtime production designer) in Italy, where the theatre is about to unspool the world premiere of the twelfth “Life Aquatic” documentary by the world famous oceanographer, Steve Zissou, entitled “The Jaguar Shark (Part One).” In the documentary, we are introduced to the crew of his ship, the Belafonte: Esteban du Plantier, the sixty-six year old chief diver of Team Zissou, who has been Zissou’s closest friend and colleague for over a quarter century; Klaus Daimler, 40, the ship’s engineer; Vikram Ray, 28, cameraman; Bobby Ogata, a diver in his early twenties who Zissou points out can hold his breath for over seven and a half minutes; Renzo Pietro, 45, editor and sound man; Vladimir Wolodarsky, 38, a physicist and composer of the scores for all of Zissou’s films; Anne-Marie Sakowitz, 25, the script girl; Pele dos Santos, 36, the safety expert; Eleanor Zissou, his wife and Vice President of the Zissou Society; and seven marine science students from the University of Alaska who are working as unpaid interns on this expedition for school credit.
The title of the documentary is a misnomer, as we never actually see the shark in question. While the cameras are rolling atop the deck of the Belafonte, Zissou surfaces through a bubbling swirl of blood. While photographic a school of fluorescent snapper, Esteban is attacked by something Zissou describes as a “highly abnormal shark-like fish” with strange dorsal features and spots all over it. As the film rolls in the theatre, Zissou is in the audience with Eleanor, watching the film without expression. During a question and answer period after the show, Zissou is asked by a young man what is next for Team Zissou, to which Zissou responds that he will hunt the shark down and kill it. Since the young man, Ned Plimpton, is being played by Owen Wilson, we know he will eventually become a major part of the story. Outside the theatre, Zissou is greeted by festival personnel, fans, his wife and crew, his hated rival, Alistair Hennessey, and his producer, Oseary Drakoulias. Not wanting to deal with a variety of issues, requests and demands, Zissou heads off to a festival bar, where Ned introduces himself to Zissou, the son of a former flame who recently passed away. The pair at first dance around the question of whether Ned is Zissou’s son, but by the end of the evening, Ned is staying aboard the Belafonte (docked in the harbor just outside the main theatre) and being introduced to everyone by Zissou as “probably my son.” Within 24 hours, Ned decides to leave his job as a pilot for Air Kentucky and become a part of Team Zissou, although he isn’t so sure he’ll change his name to Ned Zissou just yet, which is better than what his father would have named him if he had a say in it. Kingsley Zissou.
Ned joins Team Zissou at a bad time. Unable to secure grant funds to complete his expedition for the Jaguar shark (the effeminate Hennessey is the most popular choice of philanthropists), Zissou works on Drakoulias to find some kind of gap-financing. Meanwhile, Zissou agrees to allow an interviewer with Oceanographic Explorer to spend some time with his team, in the hopes a cover story will help bring investors. The reporter, a very pregnant Jane Winslett-Richardson, arrives while Team Zissou, in their pajamas, shooting a rare congregation of electric jellyfish washing up on the beachhead. Not wanting to see his possible father ending his career in such an anticlimactic fashion, Ned steps up with a donation of the small inheritance his mother left him, which helps Drakoulias acquire a completion bond. However, the bank is requiring one of their representatives, Bill Ubell, join the expedition to insure Zissou stays on budget.
Thus, Team Zissou, along with a potential son, a reporter and a bank stooge, sets off to find the elusive Jaguar shark, which Zissou was able to tag with a homing dart in the attack on Esteban.
Despite its 139 page length, the sreenplay was a quick read, one of the few I have ever felt compelled to read in a single sitting. And while “The Life Aquatic” can be somewhat properly described as an action film, Anderson thankfully understands, as he did in “Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tennebaums,” that a story is stronger when the characters are worth spending time with. Steve Zissou will be, without a doubt, the most narcissistic, tragically flawed protagonist to be seen on the silver screen in 2004. He often says the first thing that pops into his head, regardless of how it might make the people around him feel, and more often than not will think of how a situation will affect him instead of everyone else. But the man can rise to the occasion when he needs to, and he is able to recognize when he’s messed something up so badly, a little humility is required.
(Now that I think about it, there is one other actor in the world who could play Steve Zissou, Robert Downey, Jr., but not for another twenty years.)
While reading the screenplay, I was aware of some of the other actors who have already been cast in the film, including Cate Blanchett (Jane), Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston (Eleanor) and Peter Stormare. What I was shocked to discover while doing research for this review was that Dafoe has been tapped to play Klaus, the ship engineer, whom I saw as Stormare from the first page, as I had seen Dafoe as the bank stooge, Bill Ubell, instead. With Jeff Goldblum likely to be playing Ubell, I can only surmise Stormare will be playing the rather small role of Renzo the sound editor. The criminally underused Bud Cort has also been cast in the film, and although his character has not been officially announced yet, I estimate based on character descriptions he will be playing Hennessey. As of this writing, the Internet Movie Database, WesAnderson.org and several others report regular Anderson player Kumar Pallanda will be playing a Foreign Exchange Money Employee, but I cannot find this character anywhere in the script. Perhaps he will be the elderly man at the start of the film who tries to get Zissou to sign several photographs. One person who will be missed in “The Life Aquatic” is Luke Wilson, who will be busy working on his directorial debut, “The Wendell Baker Story,” to take a major role in this film, although there are plenty of scenes where he could make an uncredited cameo.
Wes Anderson is one of the best filmmakers working today, and “The Life Aquatic” takes him into new territories. Is the move away from the localized American locations (Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston and New York City) of the first three films to the more expansive area of the Mediterranean Sea the work of new collaborator Noah Baumbach? Certainly, in “Rushmore,” Anderson has shown interest in oceanography, using a Jacques Cousteau book as a minor plot point, and a Cousteau quote (“Whenever one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself”) which one could say foreshadows the Steve Zissou character five years before his creation. Whatever Baumbach has brought to the table, it has made for the finest story yet from American Empirical Pictures, which is saying quite a lot indeed. This script, dated March 14, 2003, was written by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. Principal photography on the film is scheduled to begin in Italy this month.Rating: A