The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
It is my un-professional opinion that Wes Anderson is one of the most important filmmakers to come along in the last ten years. His library of films may be small (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic), but every one of them shines as an example of excellent fillmmaking.
In The Life Aquatic, Bill Murray (Anderson's most frequent collaborator outside of Owen Wilson) plays Steve Zissou, an oceanographer whose best friend was killed by a mythical shark while filming their current documentary of life underwater. Returning to dry land, Zissou and his crew seek the fubds for yet another documentary, this time they're going after the shark to kill it.
Anderson assembles yet another brilliant ensemble cast for this film. Murray's Zissou is both a complete and total ass and arguably the nicest man you'll likely ever meet (very much like Gene Hackman's Royal in his previous film). While on land he takes on another crew member, Ned Plimpton (played by the underrated Owen Wilson), someone who may or may not be Zissou's son. The act is both generous and self-serving, and the film acknowledges this, it never tries to put Zissou in any negative or positive light, it just allows him to be, which is probably the greatest achievement in all of Anderson's films. His characters never feel like actors, you see them as the people Anderson has created.
Angelica Houston shows up as Eleanor, Zissou's wife, in this, her second film with Wes Anderson. To say her performance was understated would...well...be an understatement. She's soft spoken, never interefering, she never chews the scenery, her appearences never feel forced, and the fact that her role is relatively small, but ultimately very important, shows how much she thinks of the film's stability.
Cate Blanchett plays pregnant reporter Jane, who, like Zissou is looking for something, though she's not sure what. Both Zissou and Ned fall for her Lois-Lane-like charms, despite her pregnancy, or maybe because of it. Unlike most of the main characters, Jane never feels vulnerable. She's strong willed and even in the face of Zissou's unwanted advances as well as many other adversities, surrounded by nothing but water, she stands her ground. She all but steals the movie. The only times we even get a glimpse at her "softer" side is her infrequent phone calls to her editor/father of her baby, but even then she never gives in to it. She walks to the edge, looks over and spits into the canyon.
As mentioned, Owen Wilson plays possible-son Ned. Ned has come from Kentucky after the death of his mother to seek out the man she said was his father. Wilson has made a name for himself as a more comedic actor, but Anderson seems to be able to bring out the best in him, and consistently prove that he is indeed a talented man capable of all sorts of range. Like Jane and Zissou, Ned is looking for something, essentially it boils down to lost time. He wants that thing that he never had, a relationship with his father, or just a father, because as easy as it would be to get a definite answer, neither Zissou or Ned ever press the issue. They choose to live with their doubt and accept what they hope in their hearts is true.
Willem Dafoe plays Zissou's second in command, Klaus; the Riker to his Picard if you will. Klaus is the heart and soul of the crew of the Belefonte. Dafoe plays him with such childlike attributes that he becomes both lovable and slightly annoying (in that way that kids who aren't yours seem to be) through the course of the film. He longs for Zissou's approval and adoration and becomes jealous when Ned recieves it instead.
Like Houston's Eleanor, Jeff Golblum's part in the film is both very small and very important, but unlike Houston he overstates everything he does. Anyone who's ever seen the man act knows how over-the-top he can be, and it seems Anderson wrote this part with Golblum in mind. He plays Alistaire Hennessey, the ex-husband of Eleanor and Zissou's arc-nemesis (He says as much in the film: "Don't be nice to Ali, he's my nemesis), a flamboyant scientist who manages to get himself kidnapped by pirates, his boat sunk and his crew killed. Goildblum was born to play this part.
Ther rest of the cast fills out nicely, with Noah Taylor popping up as Wolodarsky, and while Taylor deserves as much, and more, screen time as he can get, he's perfect in the role. Bud Cort as the studio flunkie Bill is hilarious, and like Taylor he does not get enough screen time. Micheal Gambon is brilliantly cast as Zissou's agent Oseary, and Robyn Cohen plays Anne-Marie, the only female member of the crew.
The Life Aquatic is definitely Anderson's most ambitious, and expensive, project to date. While the special effects aren't bad, they certainly aren't up to today's standards, which is unfortunate because it is probably the films only drawback. But, Anderson more than makes up for it by bringing back cinematographer Bob Yeoman (he's worked on every film but Bottle Rocket) and bringing in the art direction of Stefano Maria Ortolani for a first time collaboration.
Every frame of film is alive with detailed scenery, and the few journeys Zissou takes through the bowels of the ship are something that has to be seen to be believed. It also sounds wonderful, thanks to the score of Mark Mothersbough. It's not as prevalent as his score for The Royal Tenenbaums, but it doesn't need to be. In a film like this the silence of a scene says far more than the one's filled with music. Anderson never uses anything to influence the audience in any way, he has a brilliant knack for just letting things exist as they are and allowing you to feel about them in whatever way you chose. A prefect example is the death of Zissou's partner, Esteban. Zissou surfaces, the water around him turning red, he screams some statistics about the creature "Shark-like fish... ten meters in length... irregular markings... I tagged it with a homing dart... " while Klaus and company look frantically at the water around him.
Zissou: Esteban was eaten!
Klaus: Is he dead
Zissou: He was eaten!
Klaus: A shark bit him?
Zissou: A shark ATE him!
Klaus: It swallowed him whole?
Zissou: No, chewed
Is it funny? You bet your ass it is, but it's also horrifically tragic, and Anderson allows it to be both at once, there's no music that lets you know what you're supposed to feel, it just is.
Time and again Wes Anderson has proven his clout as a director; he seems to intimitely understand the filmmaking process as well as the filmwatching experience. His deal with Criterion for the exclusive distribution of his movies is amazing, and it shows both their belief in his work and his belief in himself. He is creating some of the most intriguing films of our time, and if The Life Aquatic is any example of things to come, it's only going to get better.