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Movie Review: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

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I know people who walk out of movies that truly irk them but I have never done that.

With The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou I seriously considered walking out of the theater… the trouble was that I was watching it at home.

The experience was such a sour one that I am seriously considering the need for a method for deciding when to quit on a movie.

I’m a voracious reader, rarely reading a book more than once since there are so many good books to read. So I have a system: If by page 50 – or 100 if I’m feeling charitable – I have no interest in where the plot is going or what happens with the character, I move on to the next book.

I came really close to doing that with this movie starring Bill Murray. About 30 minutes into it I decided if it did not get better by the end of the first hour I was leaving the room.

About 45 minutes into the movie it improved. It grew more interesting.

My hopes were raised.

I was realizing that actor William Dafoe actually had a character that was funny and somewhat charming.

And Cate Blachett…. well, it’s hard to stop watching her in anything.

The story – about a Jacques Cousteau-type team searching for a great sea creature – still bored me stiff but I decided to give it more time.

So I decided to watch the rest of the movie and let me tell you something: I want those two hours of my life back!

The director, Wes Anderson, had an excellent debut movie, Bottle Rocket, which was a sleeper indie hit. It was innovative, original and very clever.

Anderson’s next movie, Rushmore, was also quirky and good.

Then came The Royal Tenenbaums, which was good only in that it was weird and edgy and had great music. The movie had its moments but mostly it was junk.

And so it goes with Anderson’s latest. The movie tries on plot devices – a documentary film within the overall film, a group of pirates taking over the ship, two characters flirting with the same character – the way some people try on shoes.

Only if this movie was a shoe, or a person trying on shoes, it would have some serious fungus and stink.

After watching this I was curious about the positive critical buzz this movie received upon its release. I went and read the reviews by Roger Ebert (mostly positive) and Slate’s more reliable reviewer, David Edelstein (negative).

There are several possible reactions a movie should spark in a viewer: Pleasure, delight, fascination, shock – those are all good ones. Why did I just spend two hours on that? Well, that’s not a reaction I think a filmmaker seeks. But that’s what it garnered from me.

If you like trying on new things, give it a try. But don’t say I did not warn you.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • Triniman

    Rushmore I loved, this one and The Royal Tenenbaums I thought were dreadful. Sure, they have a style and certain quirkiness to them, but you couldn’t pay me to watch them again.

  • Scott

    That’s a shame. This one has grown on me more and more over time. I was lukewarm about it at first but upon repeated viewings, I find more and more to like about it.

  • Scott Butki

    Oh you couldnt pay me to watch this again.

    Most of the movies I saw during holiday break – Crash, Motorcycle Diaries, Millions – I loved and will review positively but this one pained me enormously.

  • Michael Heumann

    Frankly, I enjoyed this movie immensely. I even bought a copy after renting it on Netflix. I also bought the soundtrack. It has a wonderful atmosphere, which is the director’s real strength (along with quirkiness). The atmosphere really captures something that is hard to quantify–namely the aimless, childish attitudes of the film’s characters, who are all (or mostly) grown men who’ve found a way to spend their whole lives replicating the silly adventures and games we all enjoyed as kids (pirates, adventure, etc). The narrative begins from this point of view and then adds characters (Blanchett’s reporter and Owen Wilson’s “son”) who complicate and call into question the childishness of the others. There’s more to this film than most people give it credit for. It is quirky and a bit silly, but I think those traits are justifiable given the characters and the themes at work in the film. I liked this movie a lot.

  • Scott Butki

    We’ll have to disagree on this one, Mike.

  • Derek

    I loved this film. Someday, maybe I’ll be worthy of a Team Zissou speedo and cap.

  • Mat Brewster

    I rather liked this one as well. Although I also love the Royal Tannenbaums.

  • Mat Brewster

    I get most of my reading material from the library these days and so I decide a book isn’t worth it if I can’t finnish it by the time its due.

    I’ve never intentionally given up on a movie. There have been many that I stopped for whatever reason and intended to get back to and never did. But I’ve never walked out of a theatre and never stopped a move and said, forget it this isn’t worth my time.

  • Scott Butki

    Oh I get like 4 books and two dvds at a time and have limited time so I’m picky.

    Maybe I’ll try this movie again in a few months – maybe I’ll see what others see.

    In the meantime if you like it can you explain what it is about the film that you liked? What is good about it?And did you really laugh or is it more dry humor?

  • Catana

    A plot that’s clear and moves along nicely. That seems to be the requirement for people who dislike films like The Life Aquatic, Dead Man, etc. If you read books only for plot you completely miss anything that’s worthwhile but isn’t plot. I find a commonality in reviewers who complain that movies are too slow, too quirky, too whatever–they lack patience and insight–and usually, a sense of humor.

  • Scott Butki

    Now that’s just not true.

    Let’s watch the sweeping generalization

    I just finished writing elsewhere about my love for the movie Donnie Darko which has a plot that is far from clear.

    And I wrote a review published today about my love for the movie Crash, whose plot drives some crazy but it’s the characters that fascinate me.

  • ss

    I guess there’s just two kinds of people:
    Those who thought Donnie Darko meandered and had a weak ending, but liked the Life Aquatic.
    And those who feel the opposite.
    Personaly I liked the Life Aquatic. It’s theme of childhood dreams held onto to tightly for to long seemed alot quirkier and more original than a movie where it turns out ‘he was dead all along’

  • Scott Butki

    If you’re
    referring to DD with that last comment then I’d say that is just one of several ways to look at that movie. There are others. It is like Memento – another movie with a frustrating plot I really liked – in that it can be viewed multiple ways.

  • ss

    I realize DD was schizophrenic, and that opens up the number of possible interpretations to infanity, but the final scene seemed pretty clear.
    A jet engine has fallen from the sky and smote the house of DD, a body is taken out of the house, a neighborhood kid tells the girl DD had been with for the second half of the movie DD was killed, she shrugs and walks away.
    It seems pretty clear the ‘life’ DD experienced with her was actually an afterlife experience of some sort.

  • Scott Butki

    We’re getting off topic.
    Let’s get back to Aquatic.
    What is it you liked about the movie? What did it do for you that other movies – Murray in Lost In Translation, for example – didn’t do better?

  • Michael Heumann

    Well, I didn’t like DD and I liked Life Aquatic, so I guess I’m with SS. However, the reason I didn’t like DD was not because of the ending but because of the horrible acting job turned in by Drew Barrymore. Yuck!

    What did I like about Life Aquatic? It was subtly funny; it had interesting, oddball characters; it had great (and I mean GREAT) music, especially the Bowie songs in Portugese sung by Seu Jorge; the plot wandered around and (to some extent) meandered in strange places, but nevertheless all came together in the end (it was, after all, about a search for a shark, and they found the shark in the end). In the end, though, I think there’s something touching and sad and (even) beautiful about the way Zizzou broke down in tears at the sight of the shark, as though all the events that had transpired throughout the film had finally caught up with him and he suddenly, basically, grew up. That’s called an epiphany, and good epiphanies are rare in modern films. So that’s my take, Scott. I don’t want to change your opinion on the movie–your opinion is very valid and is supported by lots of critics and viewers alike–but I hope it helps you understand why I enjoyed the film for what it was.

  • ss

    I’d have to agree with you that Lost in Translation was better than Life Aquatic. I’d also have to agree with mh on most of the reasons I liked Life Aquatic, except for his interpretation of the ending. Most of the film showed the damaging effects of hanging on to childhood dreams without preaching or stating it directly. If memory serves Zissou even kills his ‘son’ in a moment of extreme irresponsiblity.
    I’m not sure Zissou grew up when he saw the shark, though, I think Anderson made the point that as damaging as following our childhood dreams and impulses can be in adult life, surrendering them completely would be even worse.

  • Scott Butki

    Had I not seen Lost in Translation and Murray’s acting in that movie I probably would have liked this movie more. As it was it seemed like he’s doing some of the same acting styles in both movies.

    Hi Mike. Thanks for elaborating on your take.
    I’m surprised you didn’t like DD but I agree Barrymore’s acting sucked.
    I watched both the original and the director’s cut and liked both.

  • Scott Butki

    More thoughts by me on Donnie Darko and other movies I saw/reviewed briefly last year are

  • Michael Heumann

    I mostly just hated Barrymore in DD–the movie itself was pretty good (though I didn’t think the director’s cut really added anything to the film).