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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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"Get Low" (2010)
Ever since “Rushmore,” latter-day bill Murray roles seem to have become a cliche: hey, do you need someone to be kind of a middle aged asshole? Call Bill Murray! And upon hearing he plays a not-quite-on-the-level funeral home owner in “Get Low,” we figured this would be the kind of role Murray could and would just sleepwalk his way through, grab his paycheck and go back to dodging phone calls about “Ghostbusters 3.” So color us pleasantly surprised when upon watching the film, we discovered that not only does Murray deliver what we had expected, he finds notes we didn’t even know were there. Yes, Frank Quinn is kind of slimy and a bit of a schemer, but when it comes to his apprentice Buddy (Lucas Black) and doing right by Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), his client who has requested an outlandish living funeral, Quinn’s own crooked, but well-intentioned code of honor comes to the fore. Murray is always a bit underrated; many people think this kind of roles finds him riffing on variations on his persona, but “Get Low” shows an actor digging into formula material and finding something deeper residing beneath the surface. And director Aaron Schneider is smart enough to get out of his way. [B+]

"Stripes" (1981)
In the 1981 Ivan Reitman film “Stripes,” Murray plays a lazy, rebellious, down-on-his-luck cab driver who loses his job, car, girlfriend and apartment all on the same day. Out of desperation and boredom, Murray cajoles his equally luckless friend Harold Ramis (who also co-wrote) into enlisting. Hilarity ensues. Conceived as “‘Animal House’ goes to the army,” “Stripes” is thin on plot and, like so many of these early ‘80s comedies, lacks forward momentum. Still, the first hour or so is up there with the best comedies of that decade (the film goes off the rails once the soldiers leave the army base), thanks in no small part to Murray’s penchant for improv and a stellar cast that includes John Candy, PJ Soles, John Laroquette and the great Warren Oates in one of his final film roles. Despite its ensemble nature, “Stripes,” unlike “Caddyshack,” is 100% Murray’s movie, and the film does best when it simply lets the man do his thing. Next to “Ghostbusters” and “Groundhog Day,” “Stripes” is the best example of Murray in his purest comedic form, improvising his way through scenes with a perfected version of what New York Times critic Janet Maslin described as “a sardonically exaggerated calm.” “Stripes” may not be “M*A*S*H*,” but then again, did Altman’s movie have Bill Murray shooting at Soviet soldiers with a machine gun? We think not. [B]

"The Razor's Edge" (1984)
Few remember (or have even heard of) Bill Murray's first foray into straight-up drama: John Byrum's "The Razor's Edge." A remake of the 1946 film of the same name and also based on the book by W. Somerset Maugham, 'Razor' finds Murray at his most awkward. Playing a WW1 veteran, he returns from the war a changed man, after experiencing the brutality of fighting and the death of a fellow soldier. He rejects the simple, cliched life that his fiance (Theresa Russell) is firmly implanted in and decides instead to postpone their wedding, live in Paris, work a simplistic job and read books. His journey also brings him to the self-discovery capital of the world, India. Word has it that Murray was so into the project that he refused to do "Ghostbusters" unless the studio funded this film as well. Who knows what the hell he had in mind, as the finished project is boring, bland, and dull. Even Murray's performance is rather unimpressive, notably his change in character after a soldier in his unit dies in his arms. It's uncomfortably bad, and the painful two hour running time doesn't do it any favors. Murray's next 'serious' role was nearly a decade later in "Groundhog Day," and one can't help but think that maybe 'Razor's' critical and commercial failure (and the pathetic final product) had something to do with it. [D]

We realize "Get Low" is really Bob Duvall's film and yes, he's a titan who we love too. We'll get to his amazing body of work, hopefully sooner rather than later. We have a feeling many of you are going to disagree with us (what else is new?) on Murray's early career, so feel free to sound off, rant and rave, etc. in the comments section. — Oliver Lyttelton,  Rodrigo Perez, Gabe Toro, Kevin Jagernauth, Christopher Bell, Stephen Belden, Danielle Johnsen.

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


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