The Misuse of Murray

Bill Murray’s turn to introversion and seriousness in roles since Rushmore has been disappointing to fans of his wild, extroverted work in Caddyshack and Kingpin. Murray is now in an indie currency mode, where he lends his mainstream appeal to fringe artist directors in exchange for good reviews of his acting. Murray brings business strength to films of questionable commercial viability. Let me be the first to question this whole set-up, because Murray is being misused. Rushmore was not bad, but let’s talk about Lost in Translation. Sofia Coppola said Murray was her inspiration for that script. Has she seen Kingpin? What else could it be than an act of savage ignorance to do what she does to Murray—she basically castrates him. Then she cuts his tongue out, and then she finishes him off with a nice lobotomy of his whole personality. The resulting mutation is her attempt to create a warm Bill Murray, which is an obvious mistake. In place of his cruel comic excellence she assigns him a pathetic, half-beating heart, and that I suppose is what the film examines—this phony, passive female universe where Bill Murray, the Bill Murrays of the world are paperized and stenciled with sad, heartfelt grins, alternating with sad, anguished eye-looks. Lost in Translation is Sofia Coppola as schoolmarm sending class clown Murray back to his seat. “Put your head down,” she says. “And shut your mouth.” I guess I am the only critic to be irritated by this. The film must then be understood as Coppola’s speech against all extroversion. Coppola’s film world is superficially moralistic. All forthcoming extroverts are bad because they seem to have no internal life. Only the apparently thoughtful and internal may pass. The Wes Andersen films are not as bad (they lack comic thrust), but they fit into the category of the overcast comedy. If you think of Caddyshack as sunny day comedy, Rushmore and Steve Zissou are overcast, like Lost in Translation. We are uncomfortably in-between night and day, in the yawning hours. I felt that same yawn watching Broken Flowers, the latest in the Murray-currency set-up, this from an older director Jim Jarmusch. It is striking the similarity of the films across many filmmakers. We see the same cloning in rock music. The overcast comedy style is pushy understatement, empty austerity, open-ended dialogue, always stressing the awkwardness of not knowing what to say, the absence of any conversational rhythm, any wit, any quickness of mind. The cloud-cover of moralism drifts in to check the laughs. These films have sincere hugging and learning, momentous moral realizations straight from depression seminars—learn to be honest about yourself (Broken Flowers), learn to let go (Lost in Translation). In comedy there can be no sincere hugging or learning, that’s a principle. But there is no attention to principle here. The writing is taxed. The writer is saying: I can’t give a lot of effort, I’m stultified by the world’s heavy apathy shroud, and it’s just not worth the effort. This stultification of the comic sense is what Murray then represents on the screen. Trying to be funny isn’t worth it any more, he says. I’ll just be serious. Serious is easier. When he is staged as himself, as in Lost in Translation, and when we have a lot of close-ups, the film automatically becomes about aging, because Murray looks old, older than a comedian should really get. He looks uncomfortably old, and that becomes the real message of the film—you’re going to get old, and it’s going to be really uncomfortable, an uncomfortable process ending in death during you which you gradually realize the pointlessness of all effort. Therefore be quiet, Coppola says. Be reserved, Jarmusch says. We will protect your quietude. We will reward your inaction. We will bring life to the dull character. Excitement will come to the boring. Interesting things will happen to you as long as you are tired and depressed.

I question the placement of Bill Murray in this world, a world of depression. Murray does not belong in these overcast conditions. His repression looks forced because it is. Murray belongs in the sun, where careless, vindictive extroversion is allowed, where comedians have permission to be funny.

Copyright 2006, by Christopher Duckett