The Films Of Bill Murray: A Retrospective

The Films Of Bill Murray: A Retrospective

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." Certainly, not everything Murray has done is great or even good, hell, some of it is downright awful but there is a certain ineffable quality he brings to even the dullest of proceedings that is fascinating to watch. From defining roles in films that have made careers for some of American cinema’s brightest young talents, to puzzling walk-on parts in movies that for whatever random reason compelled Murray to leave his house, his has been a career of highs, lows and at times, extended middles, but the peaks are high indeed, and make up for many of the valleys.

Since his latest picture, "Get Low" comes out today (Friday, July 30) in limited release (read our review) we thought we’d take this opportunity to look at the best, the worst and the forgettable of Murray’s eclectic career.

"Ghostbusters" (1984)
Many of Murray’s first roles have dated somewhat poorly, but "Ghostbusters"? It feels as fresh as a daisy, even now. The first stone-cold classic in the Murray oeuvre ("Tootsie" is worth a mention, but is something of a minor role for the star), and still, 25 years on, his biggest hit, it’s the gold-standard of effects-driven comedies. As much as anything, this is down to the chemistry between the actors; Murray, Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd had been working together for years by this point, and they feel like the three essential parts in a machine (although having said that, the underwritten, token nature of Ernie Hudson’s character is the film’s major flaw). Murray is clearly the MVP, effortlessly swinging between bone-dry delivery and flat-out silliness, but when the time comes to step up and face the supernatural case, he’s believable as an ass-kicker of the deceased. Of course, the question of a second sequel (the less said about "Ghostbusters II" the better, and thankfully Murray himself feels the same) is one that’s haunted Murray for most of the last twenty years, and, while we share the actor’s feelings about it potentially being a cash-in, we’d be lying if we said we didn’t get a little thrill when he strapped on the backpack again in last year’s "Zombieland." [A]

"Quick Change" (1990)
Hell hath no fury like a Murray scorned. The comedian was so resentful that Ron Howard did not direct this New York comedic caper, that he recently said the filmmaker was dead to him (Murray was forced to co-direct with Howard Franklin; it’s the only film the comedian has ever helmed). And while this love letter to the Big Apple has its nostalgic supporters, there’s no denying it’s a rather mediocre/OK effort at best with occasionally riotous laughs peppering a largely rote heist story. Murray plays a stoic-faced clown, who, with the help of his associates (Geena Davis and Randy Quaid) pulls off a bank robbery in Manhattan only to get lost in Brooklyn and Queens on the way to JFK (this being in the wayward ’80s days when no one in New York apparently knew the city outside their own borough or limited five-block radius). Murray plays it straight throughout, delivering droll lines with a Sahara dry wit, but the real highlights of the films are all the supporting actors: Tony Shaloub as a clueless ethnic cab driver, Stanley Tucci in an early role as a gangster, and character actor Philip Bosco in a brilliant turn as a pathologically on-schedule bus driver who delivers the film’s loudest laughs. [B-]

"Mad Dog & Glory" (1993)
The brilliance of the subtle and mannered Martin Scorsese-produced, John McNaughton-directed film is in the casting twist (though the solid writing by Richard Price doesn’t hurt). Robert DeNiro, playing against type, is a sad-sack, ineffectual police photographer (ironically nicknamed Mad Dog because he’s so harmless) and Bill Murray is the charming, but unhinged mid-level wiseguy who really just wants to be a raconteur, tell jokes and make best buddies with everyone. Eventually their paths cross — DeNiro saves Murray’s character’s life and he’s repaid with an on-loan call girl (Uma Thurman) that the meek cop soon falls head over heels for. The bemused heavy sees this as a betrayal of what he perceives to be a blossoming amity and soon they’re headed for a showdown that gets ugly. The genius is also in the nuanced writing, but after years in broad comedies playing loud loonies, Murray finally gets to flex his chops in a role that is essentially an unstable, but lonely gangster in need of a friend. The line, "You’re ruining our friendship!" as Murray pummels the poor DeNiro sap character into the ground is just priceless. While not flawless per se, it’s just a few films away from "Rushmore" and a small, but potent augur of what’s to come. [B]"Rushmore" (1999)
It really must be noted — because perhaps it isn’t entirely obvious to some — that there is a distinct before and after period for Murray and his career, and it’s obviously delineated by Wes Anderson’s "Rushmore." Sure, it marks the beginning of Murray’s turn as a dramatic actor which perhaps unleashed the tidal wave of soul and pathos we were heretofore unaware that he possessed, but in rewatching his old films there’s a remarkable shift in quality, both in his performances and in the caliber of the films. In writing this feature it became clear to us that while Murray was always a fine comedic actor, he’s almost never looked back since his first Anderson collaboration, and it’s something for which we’re eternally grateful to the filmmaker. Anyone who says "Rushmore" is not Wes Anderson’s best film bar none should have their head examined and Murray is instrumental in balancing the melancholy dolor and the bittersweet comedy that makes this film a modern autumnal classic. While always admired, Murray gained new -found thespian respect (plus his first significant award-season plaudits) for his forlorn and humanizing turn as the lonely and self-loathing millionaire Herman Blume who falls into a love triangle with a 15-year-old prep school boy (Jason Schwartzman, in a career-making role). Blume is both shameless and petty, and yet a genuine friend to this ambitious yet always-underachieving teen. They’re made for one another and Murray’s soulful and hilarious turn as the aging steel magnate evinced a quiet inner ache that’s remarkably watchable, and one for the ages. [A+]

"Coffee & Cigarettes" (Segment "Delirium") (2003)
Like all vignette films, Jim Jarmusch‘s paean to java, smoke and conversation is uneven (shot over a decade stealing time with actors whenever he could, the film naturally vacillates in quality), but no scene (or odd collaboration) is more inspired than the genius and hilarious summit of Bill Murray and members of the Wu-Tang Clan. Murray plays a hyper version of himself, hiding out in a Queens coffee shop disguised as a waiter trying to escape life and addicted to reckless amounts of caffeine and tobacco. Wu members the RZA and the GZA try to convince Murray to meditate and keep it healthy and assuage his smokers cough, but word is born, it’s to no avail. While not a perfect film by any means, the "Delirium" short sequence might be one of the best scenes captured on celluloid during the aughts. [A]

"Ed Wood" (1994)
We dearly hope that, one day, the pod person that at some point in the recent past kidnapped and replaced Tim Burton finds a copy of this film, and is moved to release his captive. Arguably the most grounded, and certainly the most mature and dramatic film of Burton’s career, it’s also one of his very best, following the titular director, regularly named as the worst in Hollywood history, and his friendship with fading, morphine-addicted horror icon Bela Lugosi (an Oscar-winning turn by Martin Landau). In a top-notch supporting cast — which includes that rare thing: a tolerable Sarah Jessica Parker performance — Murray stands out as openly gay actor Bunny Breckinridge, who played the villainous "The Ruler" in Wood’s magnum opus "Plan 9 From Outer Space." In a then-rare supporting role, and one substantially different from most of his roles up to that point, Murray still gets the lion’s share of the laughs, but brings a weight and sadness to his role as well. The actor had a few barren years ahead of him, with the likes of "Larger Than Life" and "The Man Who Knew Too Little," but it was this role that, in many ways, paved the way for his work with the likes of Sofia Coppola, Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson. [A]

"Caddyshack" (1980)
For those who grew up with it — the generation for whom Bill Murray was a late night comedy god, who were handed it as an early R-rated VHS by older siblings, who quote it at the slightest provocation — "Caddyshack" is an untouchable comedy classic. For the rest of us, it’s a badly-dated washout. Following the "Animal House" template pretty closely, and marking the directorial debut of Harold Ramis, it concerns a young caddy (Michael O’Keefe, who’d just picked up an Oscar nomination for "The Great Santini") at a golf course, who gets drawn into a bet between the snobbish owners and a crass millionaire (Rodney Dangerfield), while the eccentric groundskeeper (Murray), tries to hunt down a malevolent gopher. Of course, this recap assumes that at any point you’re less than bored with the plot, or most of the characters. O’Keefe is a fine actor in one of the blandest leading roles in a comedy ever written, while Dangerfield is eminently punch-able. The gags are mostly anaemic, expected to get laughs for shock value, and without a cast as all-round likable as that of "Animal House," it can’t help but feel like a weaker cousin of that film. It’s only redeemed by Murray (and to a lesser extent, Chevy Chase), who, in very little screen time, manages to create an indelible character, and gets probably 90% of the laughs. But in the age of YouTube, is there really any reason to watch the whole movie? [C+]

"Charlie’s Angels" (2000)
Yeah, you know what, who cares about this boring “girl power” tentpole other than it provides some great Bill Murray anecdote fodder. Not one to suffer fools gladly, and possessing a short fuse for stupidity and incompetence, it was probably only a matter of time before Murray lost his shit on somebody while filming “Charlie’s Angels.” Directed by McG (who seems to excel at getting the worst out of whoever he works with) the film starred Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu as the titular crew of crimefighters. But it was the latter who couldn’t defeat the most egregious crime of all: bad acting. Murray singled out Liu and lambasted the “actress” for her lack of chops, and the ensuing argument got so heated that filming had to be shut down for the day (and McG says Murray also headbutted him on-set). Needless to say, Murray and Liu are done. Professionally. And while the film marks one of the most faceless and boring of Murray’s paycheck gigs — really, any marginal comedian could’ve stepped into the thankless role of Bosley (sorry Bernie Mac) — it does provide one important lesson everyone should know: don’t fuck with Bill Murray. [C]

"Lost In Translation" (2003)
Just over 25 years after he made his debut on "Saturday Night Live," Murray finally received his first Oscar nomination. While he may not have taken the loss to Sean Penn gracefully, the nod was more than well-deserved. Director Sofia Coppola wrote the role of an action movie star in Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial, who begins a friendship with a newly-married young woman (Scarlett Johansson), for Murray himself, and he’s never been better — rarely is he so sympathetic and soulful. He just about pulls the film’s more culturally insensitive moments back from the brink, for one thing, while remaining consistently funny throughout. Most importantly, it’s Murray’s performance that balances the central relationship out; with another actor in the part, it might have seemed inappropriate, even creepy, but there’s a lovely quality to Bob Harris that prevents this — instead, it mostly seems platonic, even paternal, on his side at least. It seemed to mark Murray’s entry into the third act of his career, and what an entrance it was. [A]

"Groundhog Day" (1993)
Is it even possible to make a perfect film? Harold Ramis comes very close with "Groundhog Day." Some might argue that it’s too sentimental (to which we’d like to introduce you to our friend Frank Capra, who cordially invites you to go fuck yourselves), but really, the film falls down with one terrible central mistake, one that’s shared by smart filmmakers from Steven Soderbergh and Peter Weir to Robert Altman and the guy who did "Muppets in Space": the casting of Andie Macdowell. But it’s a testament to the greatness of the film that it still ranks as a hall-of-famer despite Macdowell’s performance (which to be fair, is probably one of her best). The screenplay is impossibly tight; packed with belly laughs, ingenious, profound and (like "It’s A Wonderful Life") surprisingly dark in places. Ramis has never really delivered on the promise of this one as a director, but he does very strong work here, filling the supporting cast with terrific comic actors from Chris Elliot to Steven Tobolowsky, and never letting the pace flag. But really, try to imagine this with Steve Martin, or Tom Hanks (who were both considered), in the lead; it’s Murray that makes it soar. The other actors were allegedly ruled out because Ramis considered them "too nice." Murray’s at his cynical best in the early scenes, but also manages to sell the character’s transformation in a totally believable way. So, not quite perfection, but damn close. [A]

"The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" (2004)
Oceanographer Steve Zissou is possibly the darkest of Wes Anderson’s protagonists, and it’s exciting that Murray refuses to color him in or make him too sympathetic. Yes, the character has wonderfully human grace notes, but they are often obscured by the generally ugly, unrepentant side of his personality. Murray’s Zissou is someone who’s likely made strides to become a better person, only to have those attempts met with indifference, anger, or unfortunate bad luck, and with a dead partner, a thwarted romance with Cate Blanchett’s reporter and a botched reunion with a long-lost son, he’s now trying to dedicate himself to no longer making any apologies. A weaker actor would make Zissou into a bully or even a boogeyman, but Murray’s stoicism and defiant “I don’t want you to be in on the joke” attitude belie a very human sense of loss and regret. [B+]"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]"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, Kevin Jagernauth, Christopher Bell, Stephen Belden, Danielle Johnsen.

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