March 18, 2005

I do kinda want a Kentucky Airlines flight bag, though

So I didn't do too much last weekend --- went to see The Life Aquatic. And I'm trying to get in the habit of writing more here. Do you see where this is going? Indeed. I'm a gonna subject you to a movie review. I'll even do it up proper reviewy-style, with descriptions of the plot and whatnot.

The Life Aquatic reminded me a bit of Moby Dick. Not in that "an trailblazing attempt to refashion an ancient art form into a wholely new expression of an acutely American experience," kind of a way. Nor even in that "a story about a crazy guy who tries to kill a big fish," kind of a way. No, , what The Life Aquatic brought to mind was a thought I remember having while reading Moby Dick, viz. "There's way too much book in this book."
There's too much movie in the movie. To quote the inimitable Inigo Montoya, "Let me explain. No. There is too much. Let me sum up":
Bill Murray plays Steve Zissou, a Cousteauian explorer of oceans, who's down on his luck (and funds). About two minutes into the movie, he announces his intention to set off on one last expedition: to find and kill the elusive and possibly imaginary jaguar shark, which has eaten his best friend and crewmate. You'd think the majority of the film would be taken up with this quest, and it is. But this is not a quest to be pursued as a furious, focused rush toward vengeance but a quest to be meandered along, a loose thread that allows Anderson to string together various set pieces. We start off with Zissou wheedling cash from his shady financier (Michael Gambon, who drenches his lines in accents so plummy you expect the words to issue forth in imperial purple) and his estranged wife (Angelica Huston, whose performance seems to have aimed for jaded and shot past it into an almost clinical lack of affect), and continue through a raid on the observatory of Zissou's rival Alistair Hennessy (Jeff Goldbloom), wherein Zissou's ragtag crew nick a literal boatload of state-of-the-art equipment from Hennessy (whose operation is all brushed steel, starched white linens, and pouty Aryan cabin boys who look as if they've escaped from a Herb Ritts shoot). Then there's a pirate attack, followed --- at length --- by a rescue mission which involves infiltrating an abandoned resort island-cum-pirate lair. And finally, the pursuit of the shark.
Plenty of material in there for a movie--a movie. This movie also has the mysterious return of Zissou's long-lost son, Ned (Owen Wilson) and his attempts to reconcile with Zissou, as well as said son's budding romance with a reporter (Cate Blanchett) whose feature story on Zissou may or may not turn out to be an expose, and who Zissou also has an eye on. Oh, and there's a mutiny. And five live running gags masquerading as interns from the Alaskan Oceanographic Institute. And Williem Dafoe as Zissou's faithful, jealous, put-upon second mate. As well as a half-dozen other crewmembers with backstories, among them a guitar-strumming Brazilian whose Portuguese covers of David Bowie tunes provide much of the film's background music. Let's see, have I forgotten anything? I know I skipped the bare-breasted script girl.
And so should have Anderson. (Though in fairness the script girl's three brief scenes were decidedly memorable. The actresses' face, I don't know about.) Keeping track of twenty different personalities and backstories is a courtesy most people don't pay their blood relatives, and it's a lot to ask during the course of a single movie, even one with a two hour run time. Anderson is efficient to the point of glibness in making all the introductions, but making sure everyone gets a gag in means that some major characters get too little screen time to establish themselves as more than a neatly labeled quirk in a cool outfit --- by my lights, only Blanchett and Dafoe manage to seem three-dimensional.
The only way to anchor this merry-go-round is to give it a strong central presence to revolve around, which is where Murray's Steve Zissou is supposed to come in. And here, I feel we run into a subsidiary problem: Zissou is kind of a prick. Which is perfectly fine, and appropriate to the character, and fits in neatly with Anderson's previously demonstrated interest in patriarchal decline. Royal Tennebaum was a prick, too. But Gene Hackman's Royal was also exuberant, zestful, scheming, charming ---- so much so that you forgave him, and wanted his the other characters to do so as well, no matter how many time he had dicked them over. There was a time --- the early 80s --- when charming schemers were Murray's stock-in-trade, but ever since his late-career resurgence with Rushmore, he's relied instead upon an unflappable deadpan weariness and his excellent comic timing, and for the most part it's served him well. With Zissou, however, Murray's subdued downplaying makes it hard to figure out what the other characters could possibly find inspiring about him. He registers as absence rather than presence, so that when he finally does take action, rising up to attack the pirates invading his ship, one thinks not "Finally! Go, Zissou, go!" but rather, "Ah, I see it is time for one of Anderson's patented Manic Musical Montages of Feisty Resurgence."
This could be remedied through a judicious use of footage from Zissou's previous films --- why else set the film in this milleu? --- but we get barely a glimpse of them. They illustrate little about Zissou's past and serve mostly to tantalize the viewer with what might have been.
Indeed, so overstuffed is the production that much of the elaborate mise-en-scene is given short shrift. Anderson includes a wonderful shot tracking shot that tours through a cross-section of Zissou's ship, but while delightful, it is also brief, so much so that I didn't remember the existence of an observation window in the very belly of the ship until the end of the film, despite the fact that several characters were shown dreamily peering out of that same window at various points in time. But I barely had time to idly wonder where the heck they were supposed to be and what the hell they were looking at before another shiny geegaw was held up to distract me and beg admiration.
Anderson has often been described as a creator of dollhouse worlds, all all meticulous background detail and characters propped artfully into stiff attitudes of whimsy. I don't know that I could quibble with that term in respect of this movie. But for Anderson's best work, I would choose another metaphor. The Royal Tennebaums and Rushmore resemble not dollhouses but the best children's books: they create slightly unreal worlds, too much like our own to be described as pure fantasy but caulked at the seams by enough magic to make them worlds whose rules you wished you lived by, and whose charms you covet. The first pleasure of such books, the key that unlocks all the others, is the pleasure of falling in, of immersing oneself in a new world and slowly discovering its charms. Ironically, it is precisely that sense of immersion that this film lacks.

Posted by Diablevert at March 18, 2005 07:37 AM | TrackBack

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