Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, Sofia Coppola, Tim Burton — those are the names that have guided Bill Murray through phase two of the actor's long career and it's often easy to forget that this is guy who shot to fame going full retard in "Caddyshack." Truthfully, Murray's career from day one has been wildly varied as the actor/comedian tends to follow his whims rather than any prevailing Hollywood tides and trends. Following "Ghostbusters" he did a 180 and tried to dive deep into a dramatic role in "The Razor's Edge"; after earning wide acclaim for his turn in "Lost In Translation" he voiced the titular "Garfield"; following "Rushmore" he tried his hand at "Hamlet" and then went the tentpole route with "Charlie's Angels." Certainly, not everything Murray has done is great or even good, hell, some of it is downright awful but there is a certain ineffable quality he brings to even the dullest of proceedings that is fascinating to watch. From defining roles in films that have made careers for some of American cinema's brightest young talents, to puzzling walk-on parts in movies that for whatever random reason compelled Murray to leave his house, his has been a career of highs, lows and at times, extended middles, but the peaks are high indeed, and make up for many of the valleys.
Since his latest picture, "Get Low" comes out today (Friday, July 30) in limited release (read our review) we thought we'd take this opportunity to look at the best, the worst and the forgettable of Murray's eclectic career.
Many of Murray's first roles have dated somewhat poorly, but "Ghostbusters"? It feels as fresh as a daisy, even now. The first stone-cold classic in the Murray oeuvre ("Tootsie" is worth a mention, but is something of a minor role for the star), and still, 25 years on, his biggest hit, it's the gold-standard of effects-driven comedies. As much as anything, this is down to the chemistry between the actors; Murray, Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd had been working together for years by this point, and they feel like the three essential parts in a machine (although having said that, the underwritten, token nature of Ernie Hudson's character is the film's major flaw). Murray is clearly the MVP, effortlessly swinging between bone-dry delivery and flat-out silliness, but when the time comes to step up and face the supernatural case, he's believable as an ass-kicker of the deceased. Of course, the question of a second sequel (the less said about "Ghostbusters II" the better, and thankfully Murray himself feels the same) is one that's haunted Murray for most of the last twenty years, and, while we share the actor's feelings about it potentially being a cash-in, we'd be lying if we said we didn't get a little thrill when he strapped on the backpack again in last year's "Zombieland." [A]
"Quick Change" (1990)
Hell hath no fury like a Murray scorned. The comedian was so resentful that Ron Howard did not direct this New York comedic caper, that he recently said the filmmaker was dead to him (Murray was forced to co-direct with Howard Franklin; it's the only film the comedian has ever helmed). And while this love letter to the Big Apple has its nostalgic supporters, there's no denying it's a rather mediocre/OK effort at best with occasionally riotous laughs peppering a largely rote heist story. Murray plays a stoic-faced clown, who, with the help of his associates (Geena Davis and Randy Quaid) pulls off a bank robbery in Manhattan only to get lost in Brooklyn and Queens on the way to JFK (this being in the wayward '80s days when no one in New York apparently knew the city outside their own borough or limited five-block radius). Murray plays it straight throughout, delivering droll lines with a Sahara dry wit, but the real highlights of the films are all the supporting actors: Tony Shaloub as a clueless ethnic cab driver, Stanley Tucci in an early role as a gangster, and character actor Philip Bosco in a brilliant turn as a pathologically on-schedule bus driver who delivers the film's loudest laughs. [B-]
"Mad Dog & Glory" (1993)
The brilliance of the subtle and mannered Martin Scorsese-produced, John McNaughton-directed film is in the casting twist (though the solid writing by Richard Price doesn't hurt). Robert DeNiro, playing against type, is a sad-sack, ineffectual police photographer (ironically nicknamed Mad Dog because he's so harmless) and Bill Murray is the charming, but unhinged mid-level wiseguy who really just wants to be a raconteur, tell jokes and make best buddies with everyone. Eventually their paths cross — DeNiro saves Murray's character's life and he's repaid with an on-loan call girl (Uma Thurman) that the meek cop soon falls head over heels for. The bemused heavy sees this as a betrayal of what he perceives to be a blossoming amity and soon they're headed for a showdown that gets ugly. The genius is also in the nuanced writing, but after years in broad comedies playing loud loonies, Murray finally gets to flex his chops in a role that is essentially an unstable, but lonely gangster in need of a friend. The line, "You're ruining our friendship!" as Murray pummels the poor DeNiro sap character into the ground is just priceless. While not flawless per se, it's just a few films away from "Rushmore" and a small, but potent augur of what's to come. [B]