Thursday, December 3, 2015

Theory Thursday: Bill Murray the Actor (Not the Person) is Overrated

Bill Murray in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: December 4 is the release of A Very Murray Christmas.
Theory: Bill Murray the man is better than Bill Murray the actor.

Scene from Rock the Kasbah
In the grand scheme of things, few celebrities have it quite as made as Bill Murray. It may not seem like it, especially since he releases movies infrequently. However, there's something that is inherently exciting whenever he comes around. There's been countless stories of him crashing weddings or helping bartenders randomly in his day to day life. He is the life of the party in ways that are still exciting. Maybe his decades of success starting with Saturday Night Live gave him this advantage. He can travel the world without a care because he has the backing to pay for any damages. To see his appearances on the now departed The Late Show with David Letterman is to see a brand of anarchic humor that most esteemed actors within his age bracket aren't willing to get involved with. Murray, to a large extent, likes to have fun and that's a lot of fun to read about. Thankfully, he rarely does it in any fashion that is as scandalous (read: stupid) as the more famous starlets stuck forever in a gossip rag loop with their image.

But would we like Murray if it wasn't for his decades of hits? That's a good question. In all honesty, he definitely was among the best talent to come out of Saturday Night Live's first five seasons. Sure, Chevy Chase had the better initial success and John Belushi died before his time, but Murray feels like he has successfully churned out at least one classic per decade, whether it be Caddyshack, Groundhog Day, or Lost in Translation. His best films are supremely gratifying and feature that lackadaisical vibe that everyone has tried to pull off with less success. It is such the case that it's impossible to dissect the man from the character. My issue is that in the past few years, he has pretty much lost it himself and has become an actor who has phoned in a condensed version of his personality. It's not in a great way, either.

It is hard to accept that Murray isn't a great actor nowadays because of how lovable he is in real life. He's the perfect talk show guest (if you're willing to have your set destroyed). He is great fodder for news blogs. Somehow his excess hasn't outstayed its welcome. Thanks to directors like Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola, he has even managed to have a decent dramatic career, playing father figures that are at times grown up versions of his old persona. The main difference is that there's some dignity and emotional depth to these characters. They are allowed to be comic, but within a premise that makes it the basis for a whole series of bigger issues. There's a great reason that he did Oscar-nominated work for Lost in Translation. He was able to prove that his wild man persona had a vulnerable side. A lot of it was thanks to Coppola's meandering direction, but it also helps that he was confident in exploring ground that he had started with Anderson back in Rushmore.

I have to be blunt in asking: What has he done worth mentioning in the past few years? No, seriously. Outside of cameos in Anderson's films such as Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel; what has he done worth mentioning? I am not here to argue for his body of work as a whole, but just that the draw of him as an actor isn't what it was. If you look at films like Lost in Translation, you see his growth and depth. Cut to today, and you have films like St. Vincent and Rock the Kasbah, which feel more grounded in a sad sack and old version of Murray's 80's persona. It feels like the directors only hired him so that he could riff and fill in the missing spaces. This isn't a bad thing, in theory. After all, Murray did improvise most of his role in Caddyshack with extreme success. It's just that the draw of him doing anything interesting with this doesn't seem to be there anymore.

I respect Murray as a man willing to live life. I just think that it's sacrificed his ability to choose great roles anymore. Maybe he will come out with a great movie, but they've become so infrequent that I've given up on anticipating seeing a movie because of him. The pattern shows that he is fine playing one type: a righteous slacker. Maybe it worked in his younger years and thankfully Anderson hasn't tapped into that side too much. However, it's a general issue when watching the trailer for Rock the Kasbah (an Ishtar-looking rip-off if there ever was one) and the big selling point is him yelling the lyrics to Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water." Maybe it's a bad job of trailer editing, but it definitely speaks to what we've come to expect from Murray. He thinks that because we love him for being rambunctious in life, that we're willing to put up with it in characters that are otherwise nonsensical. I think that this informs too much of why Murray the actor doesn't hold the appeal that he once did.

If this sounds harsh and you're tell me that he does great work, I want you to deeply consider what you're saying. Look at Ghostbusters. Look at Scrooged. Now look at the past 10 years. Yes, there are a few goodies, but can you honestly say that A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, The Monuments Men, Get Smart, or Aloha are on par? Albeit, these are more in line with cameo roles, but with exception to Olive Kitteridge and Wes Anderson films, his filmography seems a little sluggish. Nobody is really going to talk about them as reverently as they would the Dalai Lama scene from Caddyshack. It's a fact. I am not sure if it's because he bought into his hype and chooses roles more redeeming of why people like him; or that he personally went about choosing roles in a more problematic way. We know that he has no manager, opting for the answering phone method. Maybe that has hurt him a little. Who knows.

What I'm saying should not be influential of my opinions of Murray as a person. As I've made abundantly clear, I find his real life antics to be endearing (though even I have a limit on how highly I think of them). However, I am both skeptical and curious to see if Murray's return to working with Sofia Coppola will actually pan out and bring something wonderful. This enthusiasm was initially met with me growing bored, thinking that it's an excuse to see Murray improvise his Scrooge-like persona within a Christmas special guise. As big of a deal as this special could be, I still feel like it's about buying into a personality instead of charisma. It may be able to work, but I am pretty much skeptical on watching it solely because I find Murray to be funny. I want there to be something more than a showman who has done what he's doing, but not as good as he used to. I don't think that it's entirely apropos of aging. I just think that he stopped evolving as a performer, for me, in an interesting way.
I was reluctant to make this my entry for this week's Theory Thursday because I know how popular Bill Murray is on the internet. To say anything bad is to be met with rabid fans unwilling to accept that maybe Murray has made a few bad choices in recent years. Admittedly, he isn't the worst when it comes to acting. While I give flack to his recent output, they are at least tolerable compared to other actors who phone it in. I simply think that what made Murray interesting hasn't been present in his work for some time. It's generally why I was not willing to embrace the Oscar bandwagon that surrounded St. Vincent last year. I don't want to see him do what he did in Meatballs over 30 years later. I want to see him do something fresh. At best, Anderson continues to show us what that could be. Sadly, nobody else really does.

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