Bill Murray has one of the most storied careers out of any comedic actor, but his best film has a protagonist that reflects how random the man can be himself.
Picking the best Bill Murray movie might be something that some would deem impossible. He has been in so many classics. Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Scrooged, Stripes, it goes on and on. However, what it boils down to for me relates to the sheer essence of the man. Taking a role that really speaks to how random he can also be at times. A more artistic venture that really shows the on-brand humor that the man has been involved in with decades of films. The best Bill Murray venture is The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. While the partnership between Murray and director Wes Anderson has been fruitful, portraying Steve Zissou stands above the rest. Steve Zissou is Murray incarnate.
The Life Aquatic can be seen more as an ensemble film, much like any other Anderson-led picture, but it’s so much more due to Bill Murray. His quippy and sarcastic one-liners have stuck in my head for years. It could be the entire ego that Steve has that makes him such a great character. His entire failing business as a former leading documentarian makes the journey to the top that much sweeter. The fact that all his crewmembers must look like him at all times, Steve’s consistent means to demean anyone around him, and the hilarious way in which he saves the day are just too great not to appreciate. The character itself screams Murray. The man is surrounded by magnanimous stories of his exploits in Hollywood, and that in turn reminds me of Steve Zissou.
The Life Aquatic came out in 2004 and was Wes Anderson’s fourth major film. Though he and Bill Murray had worked with one another on Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), it wasn’t until The Life Aquatic that Murray got to truly shine in the strange yet artistic world of Anderson’s imagination. It seemed as if all the characters of the film were there to elevate Zissou and not try and take the spotlight from a character that they shouldn’t. The film stars Murray, Anjelica Houston, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, and Noah Taylor, among many others. With such a high-level cast, it stands to reason that Steve Zissou wouldn’t be the focal point of the story, but his tortured downfall is front and center.
The Life Aquatic follows Steve Zissou as he is a failing documentarian trying to borrow final money from the bank for his “comeback” film. However, his best friend and first mate, Esteban, is killed by a strange and mythical shark that Steve names the Jaguar Catshark. The scientific community that once believes in his films now shuns the man for lying about his most recent exploits. Owen Wilson aka Ned Plimpton comes into the picture and is the would-be son of Steve. That and a pregnant reporter by the name of Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) is tasked with writing a cover story for a man that is on his last leg in the community that once revered him. There are so many fantastic moments in the film, especially the somewhat fleeting nuanced jokes that seem to fly by but get stuck in your head. For instance, the crew is attempting to recover some stolen money from pirates that robbed their ship, and they happen to run through leeches that only affect Steve. You can see this hilarious moment below:
The Life Aquatic currently holds a 52% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes with a much higher audience rating of 82%. The critic consensus is that the jokes and irony are overt in nature, but that is the beauty of this film. The humor is aware of itself, and Wes Anderson doesn’t allow those fleeting moments to pass the audience by. While getting hit with leeches may not seem that hilarious, it is the fact that it ONLY happened to Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is where the moment stands on its own. The film only made a little over $34 million worldwide, but like many Anderson films, it would become a cult classic long after it was in theaters.
Bill Murray has plenty of films to appreciate, but none that allow the man to be more of himself. The Life Aquatic has so many elements that make it one of Anderson’s best, like Seu Jorge performing David Bowie songs in French throughout the film. In a world where Murray can’t seem to miss, he hits harder in this film than any other. Watch it and decide for yourself, but keep on the lookout for those leeches.