Steve Zissou is an aging oceanographer whose best days are behind him. He hasn’t made a decent documentary in more than five years. Once respected internationally, this insecure narcissist now finds himself defending his reputation and desperate for funding. Endorsement deals have dried up. So has his marriage to his primary benefactor, Eleanor—just one in a trail of cold, botched relationships that lie in Steve’s wake. He maintains a feud with professional rival Alistair Hennessey, and shows antagonism toward Jane, a journalist tagging along to write a magazine article.
Still, Steve and his research vessel The Belefonte maintain a loyal crew of misfits known as Team Zissou (“We’re all a pack of strays”). There’s a German engineer named Klaus, a topless script girl, a physicist who also composes movie scores, a gaggle of unpaid interns and a safety expert who wiles away the hours playing Portuguese renditions of David Bowie songs on his guitar. This quirky bunch charts a course for revenge against a ravenous jaguar shark that eats one of their own. Along for the ride are Bill (a “bond company stooge” sent to keep tabs for an investor) and pilot Ned Plimpton, a gentle soul who admires Steve and has reason to believe that the seafaring explorer is his father.
Ned is a good-hearted southern gentleman who treats others with respect. He makes no demands of people, but is gracious and appreciative of whatever kindness he receives. He generously offers a large sum of money to Steve for his expedition. While not entirely selfless (Steve finds Ned’s respect for him a balm for his fragile ego), Steve embraces Ned and offers him a place on his team. He also heads a mission to chase down the pirates and rescue Bill, and bails out his arch-enemy in the process. Despite momentarily questioning her decision not to have an abortion, Jane does the right thing by having her baby. After being confronted with his flaws in Jane’s honest, sometimes unflattering article, a humbled Steve concludes, “I said those things. I did those things. I can live with that.” Steve looks after a three-legged dog.
Klaus reads from Corinthians during a burial at sea.
The script girl casually walks around topless in several scenes. Ned and Jane kiss, and she starts undressing them both (sex is implied). Bare-chested men wear tight shorts. Jane is pregnant with the child of a married man. While ambiguous, the sensitive Klaus may be harboring a same-sex attraction. Hennessey alludes to being bisexual (“I’m part gay”). Men refer to Steve’s earring as “gay,” and Steve calls Hennessey a “faggot.” He also makes a crass reference to Eleanor having slept with Hennessey, who is her ex-husband. On several occasions, Steve calls Jane a “bull dyke.”
It’s implied that a man gets eaten by a shark (blood is seen in the water). Men slap each other in the face and issue threats. Steve and Ned exchange blows. Steve attacks and chokes a heckler, only to get punched in the face. He later pulls a gun on Jane for no reason. A helicopter crash takes a man’s life. Pirates attack Steve’s boat and use guns and swords to threaten the crew before binding and blindfolding them. They knock out Ned and assault Bill. In what one assumes must be a fantasy sequence (absurdly, it’s not), Steve cuts himself loose and rescues his team by exchanging surreal amounts of gunfire with the bad guys. One buccaneer is hit in the neck and killed, causing the pirate to bury his sword in a young man’s shoulder. A victim is shown in a pool of blood. Steve blows up a hotel and a boat. A man is shot at point-blank range (he bleeds a lot but doesn’t die), leading to more gunplay. One crab rips the claw off of another. Hennessey strikes a whining dog.
Nearly 100 profanities, obscenities or crass slang. They include several exclamations of Jesus’ name and 10 of “g–d–n.” There are approximately 20 f-words and two-dozen s-words.
There’s social drinking at parties. Ned describes how his mother committed suicide by taking sleeping pills. Steve announces plans to get drunk. In another scene he pulls a bottle of liquor out of his coat and has a drink. Eleanor smokes cigarettes constantly. Ned draws on a pipe. Steve smokes hand-rolled cigarettes that, based on something Ned says, could be marijuana. The pregnant Jane takes a swig of liquor, but gets scolded for her poor judgment.
Steve breaks into a rival oceanographer’s communications center and steals equipment. Explaining why he’d never contacted Ned despite suspecting he had a son, Steve says, “I hate fathers and I never wanted to be one.” Also, his egotism rears its head in ugly ways.
Somewhere amid a quagmire of conceptual flotsam, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is an offbeat, niche comedy about how people between mid-life and old age must make peace with who they’ve become. Steve is a washed-up, narcissistic media figure grappling with a string of failures that force an epiphany about his rudderless existence. “This is an adventure,” he concludes. It’s a royal mess 52 years in the making, but an adventure nonetheless.
The problem is that the Jacques Cousteau-like oceanographer has traveled the world over without a moral compass. Upon reaching a point of pained reflection that might send some men to their knees, Steve simply refocuses his criteria for success using an existential lens that helps him feel less bothered by the results. A cautionary tale? Maybe for a minority, but the movie feels designed to be a darkly humorous tutorial for finding peace amid dysfunction. Some people will call this self-indulgent satire a whimsically sophisticated work of art. I don’t know who they are, though, and I would never want to get stuck in an elevator with one of them.
I suspect most viewers will find The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou as tedious as it is offensive. This surreal film is composed in dissonant keys. Moreover, it relies on sexual themes, bloody violence, drug and alcohol use, full breast nudity and lots of foul language. Why did so much marquee talent commit to a project this random and ridiculous? Probably for the same reason critics and industry insiders are likely to applaud it: It’s “art” and it’s “different.” Audiences that venture into its briny depths may emerge with a serious case of the bends, scratching their heads and wanting those two hours of their lives back.