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The Films Of Bill Murray: A Retrospective

The Playlist By The Playlist | The Playlist July 3, 2010 at 6:14AM

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."
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"Broken Flowers" (2006)
Most people prefer the wry, sarcastic Murray, but we have a soft spot for the melancholy loner version that populates low-key independent films like this Jim Jarmusch-helmed gem. As the center of the “Broken Flowers” universe, it’s possible Murray’s never been sadder. A former bachelor now living in solitude, save for nosy visits from his amateur detective neighbor, Murray’s Don Johnston decides to pry himself from his couch upon receiving a letter informing him that his son, whom he’s never known about, is coming his way. His sudden, rushed journey isn’t made as a last-ditch effort to find intimacy, or to repair broken bonds, but is a task undertaken through fear. Unable to confront his past, and ignorant about whatever potential future he might have, he goes through the motions in a stubbornly oblivious search for his son’s mother. Once Johnston realizes that, even at their worst, each former paramour has lived a much fuller life than his, around loved ones of their own, he searches for a survival instinct his character doesn’t possess, in the process allowing a flood of interior emotions to rise to the surface. [A-]

"What About Bob?"(1991)
This broad Frank Oz-directed comedy about mental illness is perhaps one best remembered nostalgically rather than revisited in the here and now. Still, it's not unfunny, just a bit slight compared to the rest of the oeuvre. Murray plays manipulative, obsessive-compulsive patient Bob Wiley who slowly makes his successful psychiatrist, Dr. Leo Marvin, (an amusingly apoplectic Richard Dreyfuss) go mental with his pathological dependencies that compel the invalid to track down his doctor on vacation. It's cute, has its moments and Murray does a fine job of keeping his manic tendencies under wraps while Dreyfus loses his marbles and simmers out of control, but as a front to back film, it's just forgettable entertainment at best. In short: nowhere as good as we remembered, but still, plenty of little bright spots including Julie Hagerty. [B]

"Kingpin" (1996)
There is nothing better than a slimy, sneaky, hustling Bill Murray. In "Kingpin," the inimitable actor plays bastard Ernie McCracken, king of the bowling world in the late 1970s. A freak loss to amateur Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson) breaks McCracken and he schemes the young man into a high-stakes bowling game which leaves him handless after an angry mob is done with him. The manipulation sets off a revenge/comeuppance picture in the bizarro world of bowling that only the Farrelly brothers could create. From McCracken's awful comb-over, to his rose bowling ball and his lecherous pick up techniques, the character is typical slime, but Murray's unwavering charisma forces you to love him anyway. When Murray is bad, he's awful and here he seems to bask in the torture of others, making him the perfect villain for this kind of raucous comedy. He's nasty, over the top, and yet seductively persuasive with his tacky, rakish behavior. And while "Kingpin" has its faults, it is perfect bare-bones, low-brow humor, great for a Saturday afternoon's viewing. And Murray is the primary reason to keep watching. [B]

"Scrooged" (1988)
When Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” he probably never imagined his Ebenezer Scrooge as this much of an asshole, but in Richard Donner’s updated spin on the tale, we get a positively inspired Bill Murray in complete Total Jerk mode. Murray plays arrogant TV executive (is there any other kind?) Francis Cross, visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve to try and remedy him of his selfish, greedy ways. The proceedings here are more slapstick than caustic (we would have preferred the latter) but it's interesting to view the film as a piece of Murray history. Landing between “Ghostbusters” and “Ghostbusters II” the film marked a return to the mainstream for Murray who had tried desperately to subvert his image in the still unreleased “Nothing Lasts Forever” and the dramatic misfire “The Razor’s Edge.” With “Scrooged” you can see he’s still trying to play against the type that made him a huge star. Yeah, Peter Venkman is kind of a jerk, but you like him; Cross is just a prick, plain and simple. But it is Hollywood and Christmas and lessons must be learned, and the film rides to its inevitable conclusion, with Cross’ heart growing three sizes too big and culminating in a grating, entire-cast-singalong of “Put A Little Love In Your Heart.” This is one we watched a lot in our younger years but as Christmases have come and gone, it’s been left unviewed more often than not. It hasn’t aged well, but it's a snapshot of Murray still trying to foil public perception, albeit in a very mainstream (and ultimately very successful) film. [C]

This article is related to: Bill Murray, Retrospective, Features, Feature


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