The stars are quite literally aligned for widespread critical approval of “Get Low,” but the movie’s aura of prestige hardly reflects the subpar reality. Since its triumphant premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009, this dainty feel-good movie about death has picked up tremendous accolades for the focused emoting of 79-year-old lead Robert Duvall. The buzz obscures the truth: His expected talent is the sole redeeming factor in an otherwise insipid product.
Duvall has the archetypal southern gothic loner down pat. As the alienated woodsman Felix Bush, the actor dons a comically unkempt beard and the fixed scowl of a vintage Clint Eastwood character, fitting perfectly with the isolated Tennessee countryside where the story takes place. Set in 1938, “Get Low” revolves around the mystery of Felix’s grim past, and his evident desire for closure with a narcissistic attempt to throw a funeral party for himself.
To handle the practical end of his unlikely mission, Felix enlists the help of the local funeral home, a creaky establishment operated by the slyly avaricious Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and his shy young assistant, Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black). Hoping for a big payoff, Frank and Buddy launch an ambitious publicity campaign for Frank’s unorthodox gathering, leading to a series of redundant scenes in which townspeople speak quizzically about the nature of Felix’s request, and emphasize the enigmatic lore surrounding his past. He did something bad once, you see, that caused him to hide away in his solitary cabin forty years ago. And now he wants to atone for it. But since there’s hardly a clue as to the specifics of Felix’s misdeeds until late in the movie, we’re given no reason to care about the him beyond the misery apparent in his dark eyes — hence the Duvall overhype.
Felix’s morbid party plan is allegedly based on a true story, but it reeks of superficiality, mainly due to the rudimentary screenplay by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell. Aaron Schneider, directing his first feature after winning an Oscar for his short film “Two Soldiers” in 2003, sticks close to the rustic atmosphere. But the whole thing amounts to little more than a flimsy costume drama. Stilted dialogue poses as profundity (“When the world’s moving under you, there’s no waiting”), while the folksy soundtrack contains enough twangy guitar riffs that you half expect Felix to drop the bleak act and bust out a hoedown.
The fakery at work in “Get Low” creates a strange tension with the quality of the performances and the lush environments captured by David Boyd’s cinematography. Schneider has the right players at his disposal; potent drama seems like the natural corollary, and the cast puts a considerable effort into digging it out, particularly Murray and Duvall as tarnished men. Duvall in particular goes a long way toward legitimizing Felix’s sadness, especially in the tender scenes he shares with an old female acquaintance (Sissy Spacek). Murray clearly relishes the opportunity to play a smarmy divorcé, and it’s nice to see his old smirk return after an extensive period of zombification in other recent roles. But Frank is a flat character relegated to the sidelines by the time of the sappy climax.
The idea of a dying man’s living wake has great movie potential, of course, and that movie does in fact exist: “The Living Wake,” briefly released via D.I.Y. distribution earlier this year, is one of the most original American movies of the decade. Writer-director Sol Tryon’s whimsical portrait of egotistical scribe K. Roth Binew (Mike O’Connell) and his adoring sidekick (Jesse Eisenberg) explores the notion of life and death with an infectious degree of narrative innovation. As K. Roth nears his pompous bash, the movie sustains a magical and at times brilliantly surreal energy marked by deadpan humor and imaginative song-and-dance sequences.
Felix’s living wake, however, simply trudges along under the misconceived guise of emotional validity. Standing before a forest filled with extras, Duvall delivers an intense, violent anecdote, practically begging for the inevitable awards campaign. The eventual explanation for his self-imposed exile feels like a cheap shot. Rather than letting Felix’s traumatic background gradually emerge, the screenwriters invest the entire weight of the movie in Duvall’s tearful display. Such schmaltz deflates Felix’s mystical dimensions and renders him puny instead. As a result, the finale seals the movie’s fate. If Duvall provides “Get Low” with its only legitimate selling point, the captain willingly goes down with his ship.