Monday, December 3, 2012

Movie Monday: Get Low

This week's Movie Monday selection is the 2010 drama Get Low!

As many of you know, I am a huge fan of Bill Murray. I grew up watching Saturday Night Live, and he undoubtedly is one of the biggest stars to come to prominence on that show. And his near-limitless talent has shown itself in some of the most interesting films of any SNL alum, from gut-busters like Stripes and Ghostbusters to quirky off-beat indies like Rushmore and Lost in Translation.

Unfortunately, it seems like Mr. Murray just isn't interested in working in movies all that much anymore, so when he does choose to be in something, I always make the effort to see it. In the case of Get Low, that was hard, because it only played in art houses and, even then, it came and went very quickly, despite the name cast. So I sort of forgot all about it, and then when I saw it on the shelf of my local library, I grabbed it.
The film opens with a shot of a house on fire. There's some yelling from inside it, and then we see the silhouette of someone escaping the flames, and running into the night. After a fade out, we meet Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), a man who seems to live a hermetic existence deep in the woods. Two young boys come by, dying of curiosity, and after they throw a rock at his window, he scares them off.

The local preacher (Gerald McRaney) arrives to tell him the news of an acquaintance of his has died, and shortly thereafter Bush surprises everyone in town by showing up, horse, buggy, and all. He tells the preacher that he wants to the church to throw a funeral--for him. The preacher has a hard time understanding why someone would want to throw their own funeral, and despite Bush's giant wad of cash to pay for it, turns him down, saying he can't buy his way into Heaven.

Overhearing all this is Buddy (Lucas Black), who works for the local undertaker Frank Quinn, played by Murray:
Quinn is frustrated with the business ("People in this town just don't die"), and when he hears about Bush's giant bank roll he sees dollar signs. He and Buddy take a trip out to Bush's house and offer to throw him a funeral, down to the last detail. Buddy is concerned that Bush might just be senile and that he's being taken advantage of, but Quinn convinces him to go along.

Quinn shepherds Bush through town, getting him a new suit, a haircut, even going on the local radio station to announce the funeral:
Bush wants everyone to come, everyone who "has a story" about him. To sweeten the pot, he offers a raffle. For every ticket bought, you get a chance to win Bush's vast plot of land after he dies!

The money starts to pour in, bags of it, which Bush lets Quinn store for him (which he does inside a very expensive coffin). Buddy continues to have, er, grave concerns over all this, as does Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek), who its clear once had an affair with Bush. After visiting the grave of a woman named Mary Lee, Bush walks in the freezing rain to Mattie's door, where they discuss their troubled past:
The "funeral" is thrown, and it attracts thousands of people, and with all the noise and bunting, it feels more like a concert than a funeral. Quinn makes a speech and then turns the mike over to Bush.
Bush reveals the deep, dark truth as to why he's doing what he's doing, and why he's lived like a hermit for so many years. It brings many in the crowd to tears, including Mattie Darrow. Having finally exorcised the demons that have haunted him, he can now "get low" (aka, die in peace), and while he's alone back at his house, we get a glimpse of what it waiting for him in the next world.

With such an amazing cast, I sort of wondered how Get Low could have made such a small ripple when it was released. From what I remember the reviews were mostly positive, so what happened exactly?

Now that I've seen it, I can better understand--Get Low is a classic near-miss. It has all the elements: great acting, unusual premise, and it looks great. But it never quite comes together to make a satisfying whole. First off, Duvall's character--despite being based on a real guy--is never really convincing as anything other than someone only found in movies. He's so ornery, so disagreeable, such a PITA most of the time that I don't believe anyone would put up with him for this long. They'd most likely just say "forget you old man" and go on with their lives. Duvall is, of course, one of the greatest actors of all time, but even he can't make this guy totally real.

Also, the film wastes a lot of time with the Buddy character, who hems and haws about what he's doing. We know that the big funeral/party is going to come off, so having a character constantly saying "I don't think this is a good idea" is just a walking, talking roadblock. It also doesn't help that this boss, played by Murray, is so funny and captivating: the movie really comes to life when he's on screen, and we really don't get to see that much of him. I wonder what the movie would have been like if they had a found a way to morph the Buddy and Quinn characters into one, giving us the chance to see more of Duvall and Murray together (as it stands, they have one scene featuring just the two of them).

Finally the big scene at the end where Bush confesses is very hard to buy. A guy who has said less than ten words to his neighbors in thirty years all of a sudden has the ability and desire to spill his innermost secrets to thousands of strangers? Again, it makes for a dramatic finale to the movie, but it's just really hard to take. (Strangely enough, I can picture Murray as Bush doing this; I wonder what Get Low would have been like if he had been the lead?)

I realize I'm probably being too negative on Get Low; it's not a bad movie at all and of course it features some amazing actors. It just feels like it could have been a small masterpiece; instead we gave to settle for merely Pretty Good. And if Bill Murray is only going to do a movie once a year or so, I want it to be worth his time!

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