At first Bill Murray was a goofball, a lounge singer or a guy that tried to blow up a gopher. Graduating to movie stardom, he soon found a style of detached cool that worked like gangbusters, or ghostbusters. In movies like Stripes and Ghostbusters, he would make wry comments while the rest of his co-stars acted their parts; he rarely got involved in the drama. But it worked. A decade later, however, he could be seen giving an actual performance in Wes Anderson's Rushmore (1998). He was still funny, but he found a real emotional connection with his co-stars, and he was touching. From there, you could easily look back and find other moments of greatness: his bit parts in films like Tootsie, Ed Wood, Kingpin and Wild Things, his abrasive gangster in Mad Dog and Glory, in the very dark, anxious and underrated Quick Change, which was his directorial debut (a shared credit), and especially the whole of Groundhog Day (1993), which looks more and more like an American classic every day. But none of these is Murray's best role.
After Rushmore, he became someone to keep an eye on -- almost like a legendary character actor -- and he did not disappoint. He turned in unusual, funny little performances in the ensemble Cradle Will Rock, as a terrific Polonius in Michael Almereyda's Hamlet, as Bosley in Charlie's Angels, bearded Raleigh St. Clair in Anderson's amazing The Royal Tenenbaums, in a bit with The RZA and The GZA in Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes and as a washed-up comic in Cuba in Andy Garcia's underrated The Lost City. But none of these is Murray's best role.
Almost magically, he returned to leading roles in 2003, with something truly extraordinary. Sofia Coppola wrote Lost in Translation with him in mind. She saw in him something new; the humor had only been a cover-up for a deep and profound sadness. As tall, American actor Bob Harris, sent to Japan to make a whisky commercial, he is as completely out of place physically as he must feel in his own life. He's as lost on a flashy, twittery Japanese television show as he is when he must pick out a tile sample for his wife from among a FedEx box full of them. He makes a rare, human connection with another profoundly lost and sad American, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), and the result is a bittersweet comedy as great and as poetic as anything of Chaplin's (with an ending that rivals City Lights). I'm tempted to call this Murray's best role, but I'm going to hold off still longer.
I'll pause to mention The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), collecting a paycheck on Garfield (2004) and its sequel, and more bit parts in The Darjeeling Limited, Get Smart, City of Ember and in two of my favorite films of 2009: Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Limits of Control. But not long after an Oscar nomination for Lost in Translation, he appeared in another leading role in another bittersweet comedy, Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers (2005). He plays Don Johnston, a wealthy do-nothing whose latest girlfriend dumps him. At the same time, he gets an anonymous letter saying that he has a son he never knew about. His next-door neighbor Winston (a wonderful Jeffrey Wright), a family man and an amateur detective comes up with a list of Don's former lovers who could possibly be the baby mama. And hence he goes on a road trip to visit the five women. Along the way, Jarmusch gives him some warm moments, some funny moments, some cynical moments and some flat-out scary moments. He's sad and lost and funny still, but he's also cautious, curious, melancholy and a whole gamut of other emotions. This time it's the movie's universe that stays cool and calm, while Murray acts his heart out.
Ultimately, the movie did not do well. It never really answers the question of which woman bore the son, or even who the son is. It's more about Don's own self-discovery than anything, but audiences don't do well with a mystery that is never solved. The movie earned some good reviews, but was mostly forgotten by the time year-end lists and awards came around, and the box office was unspectacular. Murray commented in interviews that he was disappointed by the film's performance and considered it his best work. And, indeed, since then he seems to have stopped giving so much of himself in his performances. I count many of Murray's films among my favorites of all time, and Lost in Translation is my top favorite, without question. But Broken Flowers is his best role.