The Life Aquatic
It may be near impossible to mix ironic distance with serious violence and death, but there was certainly an effort put forth in The Life Aquatic. I’m not sure what the point was to throw graphic violence and pirates into a self-conscious comedy satirizing such a thin target as how silly Jacques Cousteau films look now, other than perhaps elongating the running time to an excruciating length. 40 minutes quite easily could have been cut out, from Jeff Goldblum’s appearence as Bill Murray’s better funded and more competent rival (though writer/director Wes Anderson seems to be parodying Goldblum, the actor, especially by subverting his masculinity with his sexuality constantly being questioned), to a more direct through line to the Jaguar shark revenge plot.
Owen Wilson puts on a hideous Kentucky accent, which starts out most likely as a joke, but then we are expected to care about his character, especially as he gets involved with Cate Blanchett’s underwritten pregnant journalist. Blanchett, for never explained reasons, is trying to sabotage Bill Murray’s Zissou and his career, though it seems like it has been in the dumps for years already, and he’s only looking for the publicity.
The deadpan dialogue works from time to time and there’s a nice running joke that there would be red carpet gala openings for low rent nature documentaries, but co-writer Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Kicking and Screaming) and Anderson do not suit each other well in terms of styles. There are tons of talk that gets touched upon and then scurried past before there is clarity, no insight into any one person, whether intentionally or not, and everything is rather rushed and unfinished (especially those who need more development, like Willem Dafoe and more of a backstory on the relationship between Seymour Cassel as Zissou’s sharkbait partner and Murray), which works against the static way Wes Anderson shoots everything.
All the Anderson trademarks are there, characters endlessly staring at inserts (a small reptile on a hand, postcards, etc.), the mocking of the 2.35 frame by placing all the action uncomfortably in the center, everyone has special insignias and kooky artwork, an ode to the a/v dorks of the world, this time personified as unpaid interns, characters who have no purpose other than to appear in each scene, almost as a motif, but this time it all draws attention to itself. There are especially long scenes where the actors seem directed to wait three or four beats into the shot before they begin speaking, within each cut, to play up the amateurism being mocked, but there was nothing behind it, and it stopped being funny pretty quickly, and came off as real amateurism.
There are two things I really enjoyed (and one of them wasn’t the “hip” Portuguese versions of David Bowie songs being played by one of the crewmembers to both set the stage for each scene and play as commentary), Henry Selick’s gorgeous animation for the fish and the astonishing boat set, which Anderson runs the camera through several times in long tracking shots. Unfortunately, these things are entirely outside the story and the filmmaking, but then, the entire movie seems to be about being gratuitous and glamorizing extraneous details anyway.