The Film Club Dives into One of Wes Anderson’s Most Unique and Divisive Cinematic Visions

Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick

These days Wes Anderson enjoys commercial success atop a devoted cult following, with each new film eagerly anticipated and boasting an ensemble cast predictably packed with both new and returning actors. While he had directed a couple beloved films prior, this current stride can mostly be traced back to his big breakthrough hit, The Royal Tenenbaums.

But at the time, his follow-up to that film was met with shrugs and something of a commercial and critical whiff. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the maritime tale of a selfish has-been documentarian sea captain played by Bill Murray, managed only half of its predecessor’s box office, and currently sits at 56% on Rotten Tomatoes (and follow-up The Darjeeling Limited scored similar numbers). So what went wrong?

Was he so out of touch?

No, it’s the audiences who were wrong.

Since then, The Life Aquatic has experienced a pretty marked reappraisal. While it’s far from the director’s most popular or best-regarded film, it’s probably become his most cultishly adored, and has become one of Bill Murray’s most iconic roles.

Look, I’m not going to give you one of those neutral intros. This is my favorite movie of all time, and anyone who doesn’t like it is nuts. I went long on the film a few years ago for its 20th Anniversary, not only discussing my love for the film, but analyzing its deep and compelling symbolism.

But hey, that’s just my take. Let’s see what the Two Cents Film Club has to say!

Did you get a chance to watch along with us this week? Want to recommend a great (or not so great) film for the whole gang to cover? Comment below or post on our Facebook or hit us up on Twitter!

Next Week’s Pick:

With twin despots Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un trading barbs and threats in an embarrassing display of infantile posturing, we’re calling a time-out for a fast break into one of the most bizarre and unexpected elements of US-NK relations: 5-time NBA Champion, Hall of Famer, and wild man Dennis Rodman. His strange relationship with North Korea is the subject of the documentary Big Bang in Pyongyang, which we invite you to watch with us and share YOUR two cents! Available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and free to watch on Vudu.

Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at)!

Our Guest

Trey Lawson:

I get why some are less taken with The Life Aquatic. Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is a showboat, and (more than) a bit of a prick. There are times when Wes Anderson privileges cinematic artifice through non sequitur, cinematography, and the handmade quality of the production design and special effects. Yet that artifice is an appropriate introduction to Zissou, who spent his life on camera blurring personal relationships and performance, as he copes with both professional decline and the loss of his friend. So while the palette, cutaway sets, etc might grab our attention as viewers, the authentic character moments are made significant when they break through. We get to know Zissou not just through his own bluster, calcified through years of on-camera adventures, but also through his son(?) Ned (Owen Wilson), his wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), reporter Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), and the various members of his crew (including Willem Dafoe in a standout performance as Klaus). Is Zissou made a better person by the events of the film? Does he regain his former success? It’s not entirely clear, but there is a sense of catharsis in the third act which suggests something like emotional development and maybe even self-awareness. Steve Zissou bears some similarity to other Bill Murray characters, but I think this arc, in this film, makes for Murray’s best performance. Add to that the film’s aforementioned visual style, a great Bowie-fueled soundtrack (including cool Portuguese-language covers by Seu Jorge, and an end credit sequence that homages Buckaroo Banzai (including the always-entertaining Jeff Goldblum), and you get a film that is perhaps not as cohesive as some of Anderson’s other work, but is still well worth revisiting. (@T_Lawson)

The Team

Austin Vashaw:

To my son Silas:

You won’t remember, but this was the first movie you ever went to. At 5 months, you’re much too young to take to a movie theater, but Daddy’s favorite film was presented at an outdoor screening at River Market Park. You slept through it, but that’s OK.

I love this movie for a lot of reasons, but because of the fatherhood themes in particular. This is a film that makes me want to be a good dad. And even though you’ll never remember this, I think it’s relevant that your first movie was such an important and beautiful one that means so much to me and will, I hope, have a positive impact on your life.

I love you.

 A week later, the whole family went to the drive-in. Despite being older, it was 2-year-old Olivia’s first time going to a movie.

They watched Despicable Me 3. (@VforVashaw)

Alex Williams:

In the 2000’s, Wes Anderson went through something of a dark period, which hit its peak with The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited. The former was probably his most tonally diverse film, veering between whimsical animated fish and unexpected deaths and gunfights with surprising deftness.

The Life Aquatic also has one of Anderson’s best ensembles, and almost every role has a memorable component, from Cate Blanchett’s heavily pregnant reporter to the Portuguese Bowie-covering crew member played by Seu Jorge. Unfortunately, the film’s two weakest characters are its leads; Bill Murray’s Zissou is almost entirely off-putting, despite being played by the eternally charming Bill Murray, while Owen Wilson’s turn as his potential offspring is just dull, though he does offer a terrific approximation of Nicolas Cage’s Con Air accent.

The Life Aquatic is the closest Wes Anderson ever came to overdoing it with the twee affectations, though the film is charming enough to sustain itself — at least until the regretfully hokey finale. Even so, this is a looser, more self-conscious Anderson, and though his more confident, focused later films are his best, Anderson has rarely been more interesting. (@AlexWilliamsdt)

Justin Harlan:

So, Wes makes his return to Two Cents and again I’m underwhelmed by his “genius”… but I’m jumping ahead of myself…

I once considered myself a big fan of The Royal Tenenbaums. However, after purchasing an special edition DVD, I found myself enjoying it less with each rewatch, eventually leading to hocking the DVD and moving on from my attempts to recapture my adoration of the film.

The vast majority of Anderson film experiences after that one were less than stellar, including my first viewing of The Life Aquatic. And, while I’m pleased to say this was a better viewing experience, I cannot heap on lavish praise. It simply sucked less than my previous viewing of the film. Perhaps this speaks to it being a film that may grow on me in time and I actually do hope this is the case, because the cast is stellar and there are definitely moments of brilliance.

So, while my review may not be glowing, I am far more appreciative of this “opportunity” to rewatch than I expected. In closing, God bless Willem Dafoe. (@thepaintedman)

Brendan Foley:

I find that my reaction to this film changes pretty much every time I watch it. When I first saw it back during its initial release, it struck me as a mildly amusing diversion. Fine, but nowhere close to the heights of The Royal Tenenbaums and worryingly suggested that Anderson may be a one-trick pony. Since then, rewatches have thawed me on Zissou and revealed it as a film with much more depth and warmth than I gave it credit for at first, and a deep bench of laughs from Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, and really the whole ensemble, led by a pitch perfect Murray.

But for all that…it’s still a film that I find crippled in several substantial aspects, chiefly in the first and third acts. The movie’s opening is murderously slow, repeating the same basic information over and over, a problem that is magnified tenfold by the intentionally-stilted delivery of every line of dialogue, as is Anderson’s style. Anderson was pretty nakedly working in the tradition of Buckaroo Banzai and adventure films of that ilk, but he lost sight of the fact that those films MOVE, sprinting through story and character at an incredible clip.

But where The Life Aquatic really falls apart for me is in the homestretch, and this is where I think an audience will be divided between those who adore the film and those who respectfully admire it. Anderson swings big, with both a shocking tragedy and an audacious visual reveal, and to my eyes he flubs both. The tragedy may as well be tossed off with a shrug, and the big visual reveal is completely undermined by Anderson’s twee aesthetic. Anderson would reach for similar crescendos in his later work, to much more success.

When it comes right down to it, I guess I wish the middle act was the entire film. Team Zissou stumbling and bumbling through a series of mis-adventures while singing acoustic versions of Bowie songs? Now that’s a movie. (@TheTrueBrendanF)

Get it at Amazon:

The Life Aquatic — Blu-ray | DVD | Amazon Video

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