The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

A few years ago, hopped up on anticipation for The Royal Tenenbaums, I wrote that I thought Wes Anderson was the most important filmmaker in America. I praised his first two movies, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, for, among other things, a “vitality that relies on childlike wonder but demands the full range of adult emotion,” and for being so incredibly witty, so buoyantly imaginative, so humane. I said that, to my mind, Anderson had already given us such special stuff that he’d earned the privilege of making a failure. Well, I didn’t think he’d actually go and do it.

This week, I’ve been having a lot of discussions like this:

Have you seen Life Aquatic?
Have you?
Have you?
Yeah. Me too.
What’d you think?
What’d you think?
No, you.
No, you.
I asked you first.
Come on, what’d you think?

Because who wants to be the first to say bad things about a Wes Anderson movie? Not me. Yet it’s no longer cool to gush over him either. That pun is intended, by the way, because apparently such is the approved way of working out one’s tense stance toward Anderson’s new, imperfect film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Hence much speculation in the press about what sort of splash it has made, whether it is see-worthy, all wet or washed up, will sink or swim, or misses the boat.

To which I offer this inevitable addition: has Wes Anderson jumped the shark? That’s the moment, like when the Fonz actually did it on Happy Days, when some sequential pop-culture phenomenon passes its zenith of quality and begins an irrecoverable downward descent. And maybe it’s relevant to this movie, which, in case you haven’t heard, concerns the adventures of a melancholic, self-promoting undersea documentarist (Bill Murray), out for revenge on the exotic shark that ate his partner. He is attended by a properly Andersonian band of misfits, including a goofball crew (Willem Dafoe the most notably hilarious), a prosperous rival (Jeff Goldblum), an austere ex-wife (Anjelica Huston), a vigilant reporter (Cate Blanchett) and a young man who might be his estranged son (Owen Wilson).

But the essential character, the one who seems to hold our attention most closely, is the director himself. Anderson has developed a kind of brand confidence. He has his preferred actors and framings and focal lengths, his ambient-showcase style of production design. He has his own font. He has a fashionable penchant for postmodern pop-art pastiche—the Zissou character depends and plays on what we already know, or have forgotten, of Ahab and Cousteau and, of course, Bill Murray. The soundtrack does likewise with our awareness of Seu Jorge and David Bowie.

Then—and here it gets interesting—come the contradictions. Anderson still pits that childlike wonder and adult emotion against each other. He seems to view sophistication as the means to an end of simplicity. By always working with a co-writer (formerly Owen Wilson, now Noah Baumbach, another filmmaker as well as a contributor of drolleries to the New Yorker) and often with an ensemble (The Life Aquatic ends with a veritable full-cast curtain call), he implies a collaborative creative process. But his movies are very obviously governed by one man’s exacting control. His process is so transparent that it seems almost veiled.

So maybe the question of whether Anderson has jumped the shark will have to be the central focus of inquiry into his movies for a while. What, really, can we expect from him now? What is worth holding on to? 

As his audience has grown and morphed, possibly faster than his vision, it has accumulated people who feel that they’re not in on the joke, or that too many people are in on the joke, or that the joke is getting old. People who know or intuit what it means to jump the shark, and jealously or cynically figure it’s inevitable that Anderson will. The Life Aquatic has received, and deserved, mixed reviews. I don’t think it’s a failure. It may, however, become a litmus test of Anderson’s fandom, a separator of the fanatically faithful from the dissenting disenchanted. Maybe people will look back on it in twenty-five years as Anderson’s misunderstood masterpiece, or maybe they’ll call it the beginning of his end. At the very least, they’ll have an easier time discussing it.

Of course, what really matters isn’t what has been or will be said about Anderson. It’s what he does next. After all, he is America’s most important filmmaker.

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