Better Than the Material

by Jesse Hassenger

6 May 2004


It took the organizers at BAMcinématek several years to get cooperation from their reluctant subject, but at last, they presented the “What about Bill Murray?” film series. Strategically timed after Murray’s Oscar-nominated performance in Lost in Translation (2003), it resulted in the most well-attended event in BAM’s five-year history, the opening night simultaneous screenings of Lost in Translation, Quick Change, Nothing Lasts Forever, and Groundhog Day, followed by a Q&A with Murray and several of his past directors, moderated by New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell.

I attended the screening of Quick Change, which I hadn’t seen since repeated viewings in the early ‘90s. Having since relocated to New York City, Quick Change has only gained significance for me. Co-directed by Murray with frequent collaborator Howard Franklin, Change has a simple premise: Three bank robbers (Murray, Geena Davis, and Randy Quaid) pull off a heist and attempt to reach JFK Airport for their getaway. Like Groundhog Day, the complications and variations on New York gridlock are cleverly endless. Despite the film’s episodic structure, Murray anchors the loony situations (an encounter with a rule-abiding bus driver; an accidental encounter with the mafia) with a superbly city-weary comic performance.

Groundhog Day (1993) is already generally revered as the quintessential Murray comedy. Following a caustic weatherman forced to relive February 2nd until he gets it right, it’s a Hollywood high-concept executed with expertly timed precision, almost like a pared-down Ghostbusters (1984). Murray is so good and so funny that it barely matters that his costars, including Andie MacDowell and Chris Elliot, don’t have much presence.

Groundhog Day reconciles the smart-ass and nice guy aspects of Murray’s persona completely, and weirdly parallels his career. Once he made this one perfect solo comedy, his work was spiritually freed, and he delivered wonderful supporting turns in Ed Wood (1994), Rushmore (1998), Cradle Will Rock (1999), and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). (I would even include in this list of successes his goofily blissful turn in as Bosley in Charlie’s Angels [2000].)

These late-period Murray performances contrast sharply with his early hit Stripes, in which he and Harold Ramis (director of Groundhog Day) enlist in the army out of boredom and frustration with their day jobs (cab driver and ESL teacher, respectively). The stars are hilarious, especially in the first half of the film, but it meanders off just as the misfit troopers go on a real mission, as if the cast had grown accustomed to a lack of narrative and couldn’t find a way to laughs and plot.

Change and Groundhog remedy this with a tight structure imposed on the freewheeling comedy, and Lost in Translation transplants Murray’s cynical character to a more delicate, middle-aged context. Coffee and Cigarettes (2004) is Murray’s most recent release (it opens 14 May, in limited release), although his scene appears to have been shot before Translation. The film is a series of 10 vignettes, compiled and directed by Jim Jarmusch, in which a variety of film and music stars (and cult figures) riff on the titular poisons. Murray’s segment is one of the best, as he waits on rap stars GZA and RZA in a late night coffee shop, gulping coffee directly from the pot. Yet another scene stolen.

At the Q&A, Murray answered queries from Mitchell and, briefly, the audience, with a mix of irony and candor. Typical of the actor, it was, at times, difficult to discern which was which. A surprisingly prickly question came from an audience member, who asked about Murray’s well-publicized reluctance to commit to a project (Sofia Coppola allegedly spent months hounding him to do Lost in Translation). Is it possible, the fan asked, that this arises from some sort of “deep-seated need” to be asked repeatedly, to be begged for participation? After a long pause (filled with a mixture of shocked and/or admiring laughter, and some graceful uncertainty from the star), Murray replied that he didn’t think his remoteness was indicative of anything like that, but allowed: “I used to be asked a lot to clean up my room. Maybe that’s it.”

Other bits of self-observation emerged, in between jokey responses that had Mitchell shaking his head in mock disbelief. When Mitchell asked him to identify the crossing of a certain actorly self-confidence threshold, Murray immediately pointed to his improvisation while making Meatballs, a 1979 summer camp comedy that was his first box office hit: it was early in the filming that he realized it was essentially up to him to make the movie work. “When I knew I was better than the material,” he recalled.

Murray was generally forthcoming throughout the evening, although there was an odd omission in the form of writer-director-actor Ramis, subject of a recent, extensive New Yorker profile. Ramis has been one of Murray’s most frequent and successful collaborators, a costar in Stripes and Ghostbusters and director of Groundhog Day. The magazine story alludes to an estranged relationship; Ramis’ absence was not questioned.

Although he often looks uncomfortable (or maybe just bored) on, say, televised awards shows, Murray appeared relaxed before a crowd and, indeed, used stand-up-style timing in making his remarks. He described film acting as “the only thing I could do really, really well in my life,” before adding, “Everything else is a disaster.” Murray also had the opportunity to elaborate on his acting style. When asked how he approached the part of Polonius in Michael Almereyda’s 2000 remake of Hamlet, he responded with a characteristic combination of snark and humility: “A lot of people act like they’re destined to play Shakespeare, and that pisses me off.” Someone else asked where he got this sense of zen-like calm about his work. “Bed, Bath, and Beyond,” he said, and Mitchell shook his head again.

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