Bill Murray plays Steve Zissou, who is legally distinct from Jacques Cousteau, although any man on the street would tell you otherwise. He’s a hybrid of other Wes Anderson heroes and Bill Murray roles. He’s an aging man with a mediocre career behind him. He’s losing respect from his audiences and peers. His latest undersea documentary bombs at an Italian film festival.
The bombed documentary was “Part 1.” Part 2, if he can get funding, will be his revenge against the “jaguar shark” that ate his mentor, which doesn’t go over at all well with the scientific and environmentalist movie audience. Call him Ishmael Cousteau.
Along for the second expedition are his possible bastard son Ned (Owen Wilson), a journalist who respected Zissou until she met him (Cate Blanchett), and Zissou’s crew of regulars, including sad, loyal first mate Willem Dafoe and the samba-guitar troubadour (Seu Jorge) who sings exclusively from the David Bowie songbook.
Anderson’s wry sense of humor is again prevalent but is more subdued than in Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore. Little jokes, too small to be funny on their own, are packed in to the screen to make a wry, witty tapestry.
Bill Murray again offers his deadpan, dead-tired mug to Anderson’s movie cameras. For The Life Aquatic he brings his baggage from Lost in Translation as well, giving his character depth and resonance beyond his performance.
Murray’s Zissou is never as serious a character as Tenenbaum. He always seems like half a joke. And while Murray does convey pain and regret, the honesty of that emotion doesn’t reach the same heights.
Picture and Sound
R for Language, drug use, violence, partial nudity
- Audio commentary
- Interview with composer Mark Mothersbaugh
- 10 complete performances by Seu Jorge
- Al Maysles' documentary This is an Adventure
- Video journal by "Intern #1"
- Many more featurettes
This being a Criterion Collection DVD, it’s not surprising that both picture and sound quality are excellent. Both Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and DTS soundtracks are available. And according to the liner notes, the transfer was supervised by Wes Anderson and director of photography Robert Yeoman. (Criterion’s “About the Transfer” is a fascinating read for anyone with a DVD burner on their computer.)
Both discs are chock full. Disc one contains the movie and an optional audio commentary recorded by writers Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach at the New York restaurant where they wrote the movie. The commentary is better than average, perhaps because Anderson and Baumbach have each other to riff off of. It’s a bit silly that when they say that Zissou was “obviously” inspired by the real-life Jacques Cousteau, “Jacque Cousteau” has been bleeped. Disc one also contains the DVD’s weakest link, Starz on the Set, which superficially summarizes many of the other extra features.
Disc two has a dozen extra features, most of which are lean, informative, and entertaining. The best of them is a bona fide documentary made by master documentarian Al Maysles. Following in Maysles’ footsteps is “Intern #1” Matthew Gray Gubler, who shot and edited a video diary also included here.
The most interesting subject among the DVD extras is composer Mark Mothersbaugh, formerly of Devo, and long-time collaborator with Anderson. A fifteen-minute documentary covers the music of The Life Aquatic and its evolution from previous Anderson movies. Perhaps the most interesting factoid is that some of the music in The Life Aquatic is a mirror-image of a melody used in The Royal Tenenbaums. Mothersbaugh has software that virtually “flips” a score from right to left and then plays the result. Having heard the music and finding it completely appropriate, learning its source was astonishing.
And for those who fell in love with the music of Seu Jorge, the Brazilian guitar player who sings the Bowie songbook, you’ll be able to hear all ten tracks he recorded for the film.
There is also a booklet of “liner notes” that contain an interview with Wes Anderson and his brother Eric Chase Anderson, who draws the illustrations for Wes’ movies. They discuss the origin of their illustration habit.
They say familiarity breeds contempt, but the opposite is true in the case of The Life Aquatic. While still not as effective as some of Anderson’s earlier films, The Life Aquatic becomes more dear and more impressive the more you learn about it. A movie must ultimately be judged by what’s on the screen, but when a DVD can show you the care that went into the music, the costumes, or the writing process, it opens new avenues of appreciation.