Friday, January 14, 2005

Movie: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Wes Anderson’s films always take me back to my childhood. The emphasis on lists and labels, as if giving names to things will somehow make them more real, or more yours. The fixation on logos and uniforms. When I was a kid, I filled countless notebooks with insignias for organizations that only existed in my head, followed by extensive notes on the membership and its accomplishments. That’s what you have to do, I thought, if you want to be a writer. Create details. Lavish attention on them.

This obsession with particulars defines Anderson as a filmmaker. Critics who don’t like his work call him a ‘miniaturist,’ while those who do call him a ‘gifted miniaturist.’ The ‘m’ word will always be in there somewhere.

Another reason why Anderson’s films hark back to childhood is their intensity. He develops his fictional worlds so fully that you sense that you’re only seeing a fragment of them. If you wandered away from the tour, you’d find daft inventions and characters that have nothing to do with the story being told. They’re simply ... there.

THE LIFE AQUATIC features Anderson’s most extensive universe to date. It’s so fancifully dense that it threatens to overwhelm the people who inhabit it. Specifically Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), a hapless undersea explorer and documentary filmmaker struggling to save his reputation while he gets to know the man who may be his son (Owen Wilson).

But there’s plenty of emotion tucked into the film’s nooks and crannies. You just have to know where to look for it. Murray, so simpatico with Anderson after three collaborations that he’s become the embodiment of the director’s tone, subtly steers the movie away from shoals of sentiment. AQUATIC may not be as emotionally satisfying as THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, but its message is more complex. And as always, the world Anderson creates is so complete that it’s a treat to spend time there – and a sadness to leave it.

Besides, I’ll never say a harsh word about any movie ending with a credit sequence that’s a tribute to the one in BUCKAROO BANZAI. Hell, even Jeff Goldblum is there.