Cinema Signal:

Jacques Cousteau:
The Ocean World

. "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"

Think of this film as a vessel... for the comic-tragedic hilarity of Bill Murray and a team of colluding miscreants following his lead and his mock-serioso dead pan style. I say that endearingly because as ragged and disheviled as it appears to be in places, it muddles through to a fun and slightly wicked takeoff on Jacques Cousteau, his team and his legend and... it's just in time for a nice holiday release.

Steve Zissou (Murray) is an internationally famous oceanographer who has turned his and his team's aquatic exploits into a showbiz career, filming, documentary style, every detail of their voyages and explorations. The details they record for posterity are small and large, personal and public, intimate and momentous. But it all gets edited down, somehow, and the public adoration has made a star of him. Does any of this sound familiar?

When one of Zissou's closest team members and friend gets eaten by a "Jaguar Shark" (patterned on the mammoth whale shark but with neon sequined scales) on one of their expeditions, Zissou's under pressure to return to the area, hunt the creature down, and turn him into cat food. If Captain Ahab can do it with Moby Dick, you see, so can he. The loss puts a strain on the team, but affects Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), the great skipper's wife, enough to maker her give it all up. She abandons her post as the chief logistics officer, leaving hubby to steer for himself. Zissou didn't see this coming and he's devastated.

But, there are compensations. At a reception for his exploits during which he's networking with financier Drakoulias (Michael Gambon) for further funding for the next episode of their exploits, Zissou's supposed biological son Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) shows up to check his erstwhile father out. Zissou is more than pleased with the sudden appearance of an offspring from yesteryear, and quickly embraces him as a new member of his family and his team. The adoption of a new sidekick is much to the chagrin and displeasure of team member Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe) who covets the chief's favor and senses a dimishment of his importance.

Needing publicity badly in order to keep his franchise alive, Zissou agrees to an expedition-long interview by pressperson Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), a delectable if too-honest chronicler of the master's fu... er, slipups and general character. Don't think he's not trying for a little seduction in the cabin, as well. She may be youngish for him, but she's very sexy.

The takeoff or, should I say, take down of the Cousteau mystique, red knit caps, an over-accessorized ship (patrolling dolphin, helicopters, diving subs, observation balloon, film editing equipment, etc.), exotic creatures (rattail envelope fish, crayon pony fish), heroic gestures and all, (they lack an espresso maker) goes on its hectically satiric way with zany misbehavior that provides a laugh, a giggle or a groan at every turn.

Through an emotional range from angst, fear (of bankruptcy), life-threatening danger (pirate highjacking), Murray takes us on a cruise through his patented portfolio of comedic chicanery adapted for the high seas and the briny deep. The man is a match for Keaton in the way he turns melancholy into laughs.

Jeff Goldblum fits in as Hennessey, a rich, mercenary, bi-sexual (giving him the benefit of doubt) entrepreneur with an air of self-importance who takes financial advantage of a needful friend and then get his life saved by the sucker. Bud Cort springs up with a fitting role as Bill Ubell, the on-site spy for Drakoulias. As it turns out for him, he makes a good hostage when taken by a band of Phillippine pirates for ransom.

If you like your comedy zany and whacked out, this under and over sea voyage helmed in his off-beat, seemingly directionless way by Wes Anderson is a ticket to laugh and sometimes howl. Under Murray's steerage, it's a wet-suitable satire that commandeers the funny bone and will be the best comedy of the year for some passengers. Dive, anyone?

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                           ~~  Jules Brenner  

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