Wes Anderson has been a critical darling from the moment he appeared on the indie film scene, but two of his eight features to date tend to be regarded less highly than the others. In the case of 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited, lowered expectations are definitely in order—it’s Anderson’s clunkiest, least graceful effort, weighted down with sophomoric symbolism (emotional baggage is literal baggage) and veering dangerously close to exotica in its portrayal of its Indian characters. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, however, which Criterion has just upgraded to a Blu-ray edition, gets a bum rap. Co-written with Noah Baumbach (just before he reignited his own directing career with The Squid And The Whale), it’s arguably Anderson’s most mature film, and in many ways now seems like a dry run for this year’s terrific The Grand Budapest Hotel; given how adolescent-verging-on-cutesy his dollhouse sensibility can seem, tackling such middle-age concerns as defeat, mortality, and obsolescence serves as remarkably poignant counterpoint.
In all likelihood, one of the reasons Life Aquatic was undervalued upon its initial 2004 release was that it directly followed The Royal Tenenbaums, and superficially seems to rehash some of that film’s concerns to considerably lesser effect. Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), a Jacques Cousteau-like oceanographer and filmmaker, was once lionized by the world but has fallen on harder times of late, and is particularly distressed by the recent loss of his best friend, Esteban (Seymour Cassel), who was devoured by a rare “jaguar shark” during an underwater shoot. Zissou vows to find and kill the beast, and is accompanied on this mission by a pregnant reporter (Cate Blanchett), for whom he immediately falls despite her barrage of pointed questions, and by a courtly Southerner, Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), who believes Zissou to be his father—a belief that Zissou gradually comes to share.
If The Life Aquatic were actually about this filial relationship, it would indeed be a disappointment, as its exploration of Zissou and Ned’s tentative bonding feels oddly skeletal and unpersuasive. By film’s end, however, there’s more than enough evidence to suggest that this is very much by design, and that the entire “Zissou has a son” subplot functions as a crafty red herring. (To say much more would involve getting into spoilers, but consider, for example, the seemingly arbitrary ways that this subplot is resolved.) It’s no coincidence that Anderson, who usually crams his soundtracks with an eclectic mix of classic-rock needle drops, here has Seu Jorge performing Portuguese-language covers of virtually the entire David Bowie catalog, at a time when Bowie, in his late 40s and 50s, was touring with Nine Inch Nails and Moby. And there’s a reason why this film sports the clunky title The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou: It’s contemplating the life aquatic without Steve Zissou.
Thankfully, that subtext, deeply moving though it is (Zissou’s climactic encounter with the jaguar shark, in particular, hits the impending-void button hard), is there only for those who care to dig for it. There are plenty of delightful diversions on the surface, from the script girl who’s constantly topless for no apparent reason (unremarked upon by anyone) to Jeff Goldblum, as Zissou’s much wealthier rival, making the most hilarious fold in the history of poker. The Life Aquatic is a comedy, albeit one with melancholy and morbid undertones, and it’s hard to imagine anyone watching, say, the rescue effort on Ping Island—as Zissou and his team execute dorky-looking “stealth” moves in colorful wetsuits—without breaking into a big goofy grin. Like all of Anderson’s best films, it works simultaneously on multiple levels, and derives its sneaky power from the ways in which those levels intersect. Now that a decade has gone by, and Tenenbaums’ fractured family isn’t so fresh in memory, maybe that’ll be clearer.