Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The right kind of quirkiness

This is the latest in my Double Jeopardy series, which runs on Tuesdays. I'm watching movies I've seen exactly once, which other people seemed to enjoy a lot less than I did, to see if it was me who was wrong, or them.

I am not your typical Wes Anderson fan.

For starters, my favorite movie is his first, Bottle Rocket, which many Anderson fans haven't even seen. It's sweet and simple and doesn't try to do too much.

At the time I saw it, I thought I loved Rushmore, but have downgraded that to "liked a lot" over the years -- I've yet to actually watch it a second time, which I guess tells you something. I loved Bill Murray in it, but in retropsect, probably did not love Jason Schwartzmann, who I've since decided is one of Hollywood's greatest beneficiaries of nepotism. And I think the warning signs were there that Anderson could be too quirky for his own good.

Like in The Royal Tenenbaums. I'm sure I owe this movie another viewing, because it has just gotten worse and worse in my mind over the years as I've offered various people my take on it. Which is: It left me feeling offbeaten to death. (I'm sure I'm not the first person to come up with that line, but I'd never heard it before and felt kind of proud of it.) It was a thumbs up for me, but just barely.

Let's skip The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou for the moment, because it looked to me like The Royal Tenenbaums times ten. I didn't see it until after seeing ...

... The Darjeeling Limited. I probably owe this movie another viewing as well, because I started it at nearly midnight in a hotel room, and may have snoozed through as much as five to ten minutes of it, even though at the time I thought I saw the whole thing. Anyway, I hated this movie. What I disliked about it was summarized in a scene involving the aforementioned Mr. Schwartzmann, as he maces his brothers (Adrien Brody and Owen Wilson) while they're wrestling on a train. Ridiculous. Also thumbs way down to the scene at the end where they throw away all their luggage (baggage). It's as bad a metaphor as the rat running along the railing in The Departed.

I liked The Fantastic Mr. Fox about the same as most people, if not slightly more.

It was my thoughts on Tenenbaums and Darjeeling that I thought brought me out of sync with other Anderson fans ... and threatened to make me not an Anderson fan at all. They seemed to love the quirks of those movies, while I hated them. But I wanted to be an Anderson completist, so I finally circled back to The Life Aquatic, about eight months after seeing Darjeeling.

And was blown away by how much I loved it.

This was troubling. In any discussion I'd had with people about Wes Anderson, The Life Aquatic was their choice for the chink in his armor. They were willing to accept the spirit of my criticisms of Tenenbaums and Darjeeling, but always applied them to a different film -- "That's how I felt about The Life Aquatic," they said.

Not me. I didn't feel that way, not a bit. Let me give you some of the reasons I didn't:

1) The music. Here's a good sign of how effective I found the music: Nearly two years after first seeing it, I remembered the exact song that plays over the DVD menu. It's part of the goofy synthesizer score, with its throwback parallel-dimension 1980s sound -- and now that I look it up, the composer, Sven Libaek, originally wrote the music for a 1974 underwater television series called Inner Space. Then there's the consistently enjoyable decision to have Seu Jorge, playing one of Zissou's crew, sing David Bowie songs in Portuguese throughout the movie, while strumming his guitar. But what really blew me away was the use of the spine-tingling Sigur Ros song "Staralfur" during the film's emotional climax. It got me.

2) The marine life, CGI and otherwise. I loved the moment, after Zissou's disastrous opening for the first part of his most recent film, when Klaus' son presents Zissou with a colorful seahorse in a bag of water. (When the bag springs a leak during a brouhaha, Zissou transfers the creature to an empty champagne flute.) It's the film's first digital effect, and it prepares you for the way modern technology will inform this story, with its antiquated gadgets and out-of-time production design. The CGI creatures, of which there are maybe a half-dozen throughout the film, never call special attention to themselves -- they function as a throwaway detail, and are all the more pleasant for that fact. Also loved the live tracker dolphins who swim alongside the boat. And speaking of the boat ...

3) The boat. The Belafonte, Zissou's boat, is a masterpiece of old-school set design. Anderson built a massive boat set that's open on one side, as though it had been sliced in half lengthwise from bow to stern, so he could film the characters from the side as they walk between rooms, sometimes climbing between levels on ladders. It's an effect we saw in an ad campaign for (I believe) a cell phone company that Anderson shot around that same time, and it really works. Not only is it excellent to see the craftsmanship that went into this, and enables some great uninterrupted takes in which the characters move between rooms that are full of ongoing activity as they do the scene, but the rooms themselves are a triumph of understated quirkiness.

4) The antiquated equipment. As mentioned briefly earlier, I dig all the old computers, rotary phones, and other ancient gadgets that fill the Belafonte.

5) The locations. I love where Anderson chose to shoot. There's the Zissou complex on a tiny island, and the Hennessey complex on a huge island. One of the reasons I love the section where they visit the Ping Islands, torn apart and left uninhabited by a hurricane, is that they serve as a great metaphor for the Zissou we know now. As a young newlywed, Zissou visited this island on his honeymoon, its five-star hotel resplendent and shimmering. The moldering grandeur of that hotel is like Zissou in his current state of disrepair.

6) Bill Murray as Steve Zissou. I was expecting a super-ironic, eyeball-rolling, detached performance from Murray. But what I got was emotional engagement in a way that creeps up on you. Sure, there are some absurd set pieces here, most notably the one where Zissou grabs a gun and single-handedly saves most of his crew from pirates, killing several of them. But his character's emotions are always honest. I felt Zissou becoming a real person as he grapples with the reality that his best days are behind him, and that he had a son he didn't meet until the boy was in his mid- to late-20s. Anderson creates a goofy tone so that all this emotional processing can be light and funny, but that doesn't make it any less true, nor make the moments of real introspection feel any less introspective.

7) The tone. As hinted at in the previous paragraph, Anderson creates a tone that I like to think of as "melancholic jauntiness." Certainly, there is a sadness that permeates this film -- Steve Zissou is close to being washed up, he's already lost a friend to the possibly mythological jaguar shark, and his current mission is a flimsy contraption ready to take on water at any minute. But never once is The Life Aquatic depressing. It tells the story of a man who was once truly great -- he wasn't just a laughingstock, as some films would have had him be. A lesser film would have just made him a self-involved boob with no redeeming qualities, but there's a basic goodness to Steve Zissou, at his core, and he eventually displays a perceptive understanding of every situation, just when you think he might be wandering dangerously close to self-involved boobdom. He's clearly sailing into the sunset, but enough of the things he's done right in his life prevent him from being a total shambles -- and this little bit of lightness and optimism, along with some truly screwball set pieces, keeps the film humming along quite nicely.

8) The cast. There are plenty of familiar players from other Anderson movies -- Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston, and of course Murray himself. But they are assembled here in a way that makes good, quirky sense. I can imagine an international oceanographic film crew being made up of all types -- an Indian cameraman, a German second-in-command, a pilot bastard son from Kentucky, an aloof ex-wife, a pregnant reporter, a half-dozen green interns, a bond company stooge who in his younger years was Harold in Harold & Maude. (The sight of Bud Cort was quite welcome.) The Belafonte is the perfect location for this motley crew to come together as some kind of oddball family unit ... one that's a lot less over-the-top than you'd think.

Double Jeopardy Verdict, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: I'm happy not being your typical Wes Anderson fan, if it means getting to have a special place in my heart for this film.

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