The Old Man and the Sea; The Ache of Growing Old in Wes Anderson's THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU


(Originally written in 2004) When I first saw The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, I was not able to get beyond the artifice and, frankly, the sheer silliness of it. The ocean life was filmed with stop motion effects, Owen Wilson had a peculiar accent that faded in and out, there were pirates, a high-jacking, gunplay, and a guy being eaten by a shark! Also, when we see characters walk from one room to the next aboard the ship, Anderson does nothing to hide the fact that they are on a staged set. These effects even seem more out of place when compared to Anderson’s other films where he incorporates a hyper-sense of realism: characters save childhood trinkets, old records, attendance pins, visit the graves of dead parents, accidentally chop off fingers, and wear yellow jumpsuits, with nary a single special effect in the lot. Initially, the Life Aquatic caught me off guard, and its shear lunacy made it difficult to take the film seriously.

Interestingly, when I watched the movie again years later, I didn't pay attention to its silliness, and instead, found the film to be serious and even meditative. Once one does get past the effects (and it's not easy), the movie becomes a touching, melancholic story about a successful man at the end of his life who is trying to find meaning in it all; a similar theme in each of Anderson's last three films. In Rushmore, this character is played by Bill Murray, in The Royal Tennabaums, it is Gene Hackman’s Royal. In The Life Aquatic, we have Bill Murray again, this time as Steve Zissou.

It's hard to imagine anyone else other than Murray playing Zissou. Anderson and Baumbach really tailored the script to perfectly capture Murray's genius. The character of Steve Zissou demands an actor who can be both contemptible and sympathetic at the exact same moment. Bill Murray achieves this balance nearly to perfection. Jack Nicholson in the 70’s had a duality to most of his characters; he could make you laugh and afraid at the same time. Nick Cage when he’s not blowing up things can as well. Over the last several years, Murray has been recognized as a truly gifted actor, not for his range exactly, but his ability to freely move between opposite and even contradictory personalities within the same scene. A scene written with this talent in mind is when a reporter played by Cate Blanchet interviews Zissou (Murray) for the first time:
Reporter
So what happened in your opinion?

Zissou
(While eating an apple)
What are you talking about?

Reporter
Well don’t you think the public’s opinion of your work has been significantly altered in the last 5 years?

Zissou
That’s your first question? I thought this was suppose to be a puff piece

Reporter
Should we come back to it?

Zissou
Yeah.

Reporter
Okay. Is it true this is going to be your last voyage.

Zissou
(Surprised)
Wow. No comment. Who told you that? (Pause) No, goddamit, I’m only 52. How about we start with some stock dialogue. Favorite color: blue. Favorite food: sardines

Reporter
How do you feel about Part One of your new film?

Zissou
(Pausing) Why, how do you feel?

Reporter
Well, I’m honest.

Zissou
Just say it.

Reporter
I thought some of it seemed slightly fake.

Zissou
(Directed to deckhand in room behind reporter) Walladarsky, how about taking 5? (pauses, waits for him to leave) Did it seem fake when my best friend was bitten in half right in front of me? And eaten alive screaming? I think you’re a fake. I think you’re a phony, and a bad reporter. How does that feel? And tell me (points a gun at her), does this seem fake?

Reporter
(Taken aback; Angry)
How dare you? This entire article was my idea. Nobody else gives a shit.

Zissou
What about Si Perlman?

Reporter
(turning off tape recorder)
Are you joking? He’s not even paying for my expenses.

Zissou
You’re taking something out on me.

Reporter turns away and starts crying softly, obviously shaken up

Zissou
(softening)
I was only trying to defend myself.
Here, if Murray isn't careful, he would be the tyrant lashing out at anyone who questions his authority. If he goes in the other direction, he becomes the helpless child who gets his feelings hurt. Murray is neither and both at the same time. The reporter insults him by calling his movie "fake" and he defends himself the best way he can. He overreacts, but he does regain control over the situation. In this scene and throughout the whole film, Murray is able to walk this perfect tightrope between being a bully and utterly vulnerable. This is the genius of the movie and of Murray's performance.

As Murray maintains this balance, we see someone nearing the end of his life. He is not going gently into that good night, but he does know he's going, and we get to watch. It is a realization that Murray has with all of the characters in the film: his son, his wife, his crew, his arch nemesis Alistair Hennessey. He even realizes it with the “Jaguar” Shark at the end when he decides not to kill it, but instead simply says, “I wonder if it remembers me.”