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.
Harrison Lloyd (David Strathairn) is a world-renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who has it all: a devoted wife two beautiful children and an illustrious career. Although his wife Sarah (Andie MacDowell) is supportive of his career she wishes Harrison would spend more time at home being a husband and father rather than gallivanting around the world taking pictures. Before long Harrison is whisked off overseas to cover bloody ethnic conflicts in Yugoslavia and is presumed dead after the Yugoslav National Army flattens the town he is in. Sarah however is convinced Harrison is still alive because "something would have broken inside if he were dead." She barricades herself into a room with half a dozen televisions determined to uncover something about her husband's whereabouts. Miraculously she sees an image of Harrison in a crowd of civilians being hoarded to the small Croatian town of Vukovar and decides to go there herself and bring him back alive. Despite warnings that war-torn Yugoslavia is not the place for her she manages to dodge bullets and Soviet T-55 tanks while waving around a 5x7 color glossy of Harrison yelling "Have you seen this man?"
As Sarah Harrison's devoted wife Andie MacDowell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) is convincing but irritating. While we feel for her and desperately want her to find her husband alive there is nothing more annoying than watching her traipsing around yelling "Harrison? Harrison!" while the destruction of what was once the breadbasket of the region happens all around her. Adrien Brody (Summer of Sam) plays Kyle Harrison's archnemesis who ends up helping Sarah in her efforts to find Harrison. Brody is probably the most believable and well-developed character in the film despite hokey lines like "We better both pray that some day we find somebody that loves us the way she loves him." No one actually talks like that do they? In the role of Harrison's friend and colleague Yeager is Elias Koteas (The Thin Red Line). His character is supposed to be this famous photographer (we know this because he is credited for that famous photograph of the confrontation between a Chinese student and a T-59 tank during the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstration) but he is completely despicable. He comes off as a pompous know-it-all rather than a good friend to the Lloyds.
Director Elie Chouraqui wants us to believe MacDowell's character is this brave devoted wife but I found it hard to sympathize with her predicament. Sure it's sad that Harrison is missing and all but forgive me if I found myself more troubled by the execution of thousands of innocent men women and children instead. And in Vukovar amidst the dead bodies of Serbs and Croats she still finds time to take pictures and send them back to the press in the United States. The pictures come out crisp and sharp despite the fact that she shoots most of them in the dark--without a flash. Come on! What takes the cake however is the blatant Schindler's List rip-off: We see a little girl in a yellow dress who stops and smiles for a picture only to end up dead later in the film with a photographer exclaiming "It's the girl in the yellow dress!" It is also hard to buy the film's plot when when all we really know about Harrison is that he likes flowers which are the only thing he photographs in color. Overall Sarah's plight to find her husband almost seems petty in lieu of what is going around her.