Anton Corbijn’s absorbing new thriller The American is based on a novel entitled A Very Private Gentleman which quite aptly sums up its main character Jack (George Clooney). A veteran assassin-for-hire Jack’s life bears none of the trappings that we’ve come to associate with men who kill people for a living. There are no exotic cars or high-tech gadgets no boisterous comrades-in-arms not even a precocious 12-year-old to help pass the time. Exiled to a small town in Italy while he waits for the heat to subside after a job in Sweden gone awry he spends the bulk of his time alone confined to his plain apartment pausing between sets of pushups to peer anxiously out his window where scores of invisible enemies no doubt lurk waiting to strike.
When he does venture out it’s either to pay a visit to Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) a friendly and inquisitive local priest or to enlist the services of Clara (Violante Placido) an enchanting young prostitute. Jack makes for a reluctant social companion talking little and smiling even less and yet his two acquaintances seem inexorably drawn to him. Jack tries to keep them at a distance — he’s learned from experience that relationships can be hazardous to men in his line of work — but after years of allowing professional considerations to trump emotional ones his resistance is no longer as stout as it once was. Having gotten a taste of love he decides he rather likes it — so much in fact that he tells his boss (Johan Leysen) that he wants out of the death-delivery business for good as soon as he completes his latest assignment: the construction of a highly specialized firearm for a beautiful and mysterious would-be assassin (Thekla Reuten). But exiting such a profession is never a straightforward task especially when there are angry Swedes vying for one’s scalp.
Director Corbijn shuns much of the conventions of modern thrillers in The American employing a style as spartan as his protagonist’s. Though the film contains several references — both overt and implied — to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone it might be said to have more in common with 1992's Unforgiven Clint Eastwood’s acclaimed deconstruction of the well-worn genre. Corbijn prefers long static shots to the quick-cut shaky-cam chaos of the Bourne films and their analogues and his muted aesthetic makes even Italy’s scenic countryside seem a bit drab. There are no high-energy pop songs to be found on the soundtrack only Herbert Gronemeyer’s haunting piano-heavy score which Corbijn employs sparingly. Instead pervasive in The American is a kind of unnerving quiet that effectively underscores the film’s most potent scenes. How frightful a single gunshot can be when bracketed by near-complete silence.
Clooney is characteristically superb as the paranoid tormented Jack a role that calls for a tremendous degree of subtlety if not range. Corbijn tasks him along with co-stars Bonacelli and Placido to carry a determinedly minimalist film that boasts no fancy tricks up its sleeve and they deliver admirably. Audiences who go to see The American expecting a conventional Hollywood spy thriller will no doubt be disappointed to find out they’ve stumbled into an art-house film — and an unrelentingly grim one at that — but those seeking relief from the inanity and bombast of the summer movie season will be pleasantly surprised.
Meet internationally renown oceanographer and documentarian Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and some of his Team Zissou: Eleanor Zissou (Anjelica Huston) his estranged wife and the "brains behind the operation"; Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe) the loyal chief engineer; and Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon) the septuagenarian producer. Unfortunately Zissou's days are numbered having been pushed close to bankruptcy by his arch rival Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum). But what's really bothering Zissou is that his best friend and longtime collaborator Esteban (Seymour Cassel) has been eaten by an underwater assailant known as the Jaguar Shark. Charged by vengeance Zissou sets out on his boat The Belafonte to hunt down the predator in one last filmed expedition. He is joined by two new Team Zissou members: Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) a young airline copilot who may be Zissou's son and Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) a beautiful and pregnant journalist assigned to write a profile of Zissou. Along the way they face overwhelming complications including marauding pirates kidnappings and a maelstrom of human yearning.
Bill Murray has got to be one of the funniest people on the planet without ever seeming to be and his collaborations with director Wes Anderson (Rushmore The Royal Tenenbaums) have happily exploited that wellspring of comic talent. Zissou is pure Murray: slightly acerbic slightly aloof not terribly likable but deeply vulnerable. Sure the actor can play this part in his sleep but somehow he never makes it boring. The rest of the cast also measures up. Huston is striking as the austere Eleanor who is basically the glue that holds Zissou together. Wilson another Anderson staple is once again playing a very earnest fellow who simply wants to connect with the man who could be his long-lost father while also finding a little love with Jane. As the journalist the always good Blanchett who was actually pregnant during the making of Aquatic is perfect as the emotional conduit between Zissou and Ned. Dafoe finally gets to be funny in a film--and we don't count his turn as a surly fish in Finding Nemo--as the fiercely devoted Klaus who's a bit jealous of Ned. But the pièce de résistance is Brazilian actor Seu Jorge as The Belafonte's safety expert who regularly serenades the team with Portuguese renditions of David Bowie songs. Classic stuff.
In what is definitely the director's most ambitious film to date--and he may be tired of hearing that--The Life Aquatic further highlights Wes Anderson's twisted yet exquisitely witty sensibilities that were evident in his three previous efforts Bottle Rocket Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. Paying obvious homage to the stiff documentaries made by the legendary Jacques Cousteau as well as incorporating references to such movies as The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach expertly hand us the skewed universe of Zissou in hilariously played-out sequences. We can also clearly see where the bigger budget went when Team Anderson sets out to sea. There's the spectacular Belafonte set with its individual compartments in which the actors move about and the campy stop-motion special effects of the odd sea life Zissou and gang encounter. While all of this makes for an enjoyable ride the movie ultimately lacks a cohesive soul. There is a small amount of redemption at the end when Zissou comes to terms with his life and ambitions but it seems tacked on as a way to tie everything up.