Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is my favorite movie of all time. The combination of Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Willem Dafoe is enough to consider it a great piece of cinema, but add the deft and dry comedy ofAnderson and it is catapulted into the upper echelons of comedic genius. Ok, perhaps I’m getting too excited so let me bring it back down a notch and explain myself.
The Life Aquatic centers on a washed up documentarian bearing a striking resemblance to a certain Frenchman with a passion for fish and red stocking caps. After the death of his best friend, Steve Zissou decides to hunt down the killer shark that ate Esteban. What he encounters along the way though proves to be a far greater adventure than what he bargained for: run-ins with a rival captain and ex-husband of Zissou’s estranged wife, meeting probably-his-son Ned Plimpton, fighting bankruptcy, battling pirates and trying to garner the favor of a journalist covering the entire ordeal.
These plot points move the story along in an entirely hilarious way, but in and of themselves are not what make this movie great. Instead, it is the contrast between the overly-contrived and emotionally guarded Zissou, who is always “posing for the camera,” and the heartbreakingly open Ned, who hopes to have a genuine connection with his father, that makes the story truly remarkable. The entire rest of the movie works toward exposing the dissimilarity between this apparent father and son duo, including Zissou’s boat, the Belafonte.
In the scene where Steve invites Ned and the rest of the audience to see his boat, Anderson offers us a cut-away view of the Belafonte displaying each individual compartment. This compartmentalized view of the boat and its inhabitants reiterates the fact that certain rooms (and even people) are closed off to others, offering singular viewpoints blind to the rest of the crew.
The characters are communicating on different wavelengths, never fully grasping another’s struggle, desires and motivations, as if they are atoms bouncing around freely and randomly, never uniting as a whole—a common thread among all of Anderson’s movies leading to the absurdity I find so amusing. But also like the rest ofAnderson’s movies, there is a moment when these particles come together for the briefest moment and puncture the veneer of absurdity, resulting in a moment of honest emotion.
In The Life Aquatic this moment of union between the characters happens when Steve finally tracks down the Leopard Shark that ate his best friend Esteban. And what’s more, this moment happens in the interior of a small submarine with all the characters packed closely together, offering the characters one singular viewpoint which unites them in loss and sorrow and joy.
The deliberate directing of Anderson makes this movie funny and moving and it is why The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is my favorite movie of all time. Give it a chance and maybe you too will hope to be one of Zissou’s unpaid interns someday. Ho!