My alternative canon #9: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. For the rest of the week, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here.
Over the last twenty years, Bill Murray has been quietly building a body of work that amounts to the most surprising third act of any actor in recent memory. Murray always had a tendency to float through his roles, and one of the pleasures of a movie like Ghostbusters or Groundhog Day is the chance it affords to watch him maintain his sardonic equanimity through the strangest of circumstances. Yet it took the combined insights of Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola to realize that there was a darker, more wounded side to his persona. The quintessential Murray character is so detached from his surroundings that it might well lead, after a decade or two of smart remarks, to a graying, wistful cynic bewildered by his own lack of human connection. There had already been hints of a great character actor in the making in the string of small parts that he took starting with Ed Wood and Wild Things, and when combined with this newfound sense of melancholy, it became clear that something special had emerged: a performer whose history as a star could enlarge the emotional scope of a movie in a handful of scenes. (You see a similar phenomenon with Sean Connery in The Untouchables and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which make him seem like the most valuable supporting actor who ever lived.) Murray has filled a corner of most of Anderson’s movies since Rushmore, and in some cases, as in The Darjeeling Limited, it feels as if the director just wanted to have him around on the set—and who could blame him? But it’s only in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou that Murray takes center stage, and the result is both Anderson’s greatest commercial failure and a movie that seems to get richer, funnier, and more moving with time.
The Life Aquatic inspired one of my favorite reviews by the late Roger Ebert, who said: “I can’t recommend it, but I would not for one second discourage you from seeing it.” Earlier, Ebert wrote: “My rational mind informs me that this movie doesn’t work. Yet I hear a subversive whisper: Since it does so many other things, does it have to work, too? Can’t it just exist?” And the fact that it exists at all feels like a weird kind of miracle. It’s a film that seems to have been written and directed by a couple of bright twelve-year-olds, and I mean this as the highest possible praise: few other movies have come so close to putting the inner world of my childhood on film, shot through with veins of something sadder and more regretful. (I’m also inordinately susceptible to the world of Jacques Cousteau, and I wrote an entire novelette, “The Boneless One,” in homage to the fantasy of taking to sea in a research yacht.) But none of it would hold together without Murray at its heart. It takes his air of a man without a country and makes it wonderfully literal, and its star is too wry a performer to allow the story to become overly sentimental or precious: Murray knows that Zissou is kind of an asshole, and the improvised moment when he casually pulls a gun on Cate Blanchett to prove a point provides a necessary grace note to a movie that might otherwise have become insufferably whimsical. Anderson has said that he was inspired to make it by the mental image of the yacht seen in cross section, and it’s undoubtedly a lovely sight. But if the result works at all, it’s because it gives us a glimpse of the inside of Murray as well.