With the release of "Lost in Translation" ten years ago, everyone was finally forced to take Bill Murray seriously. Even the Academy finally noticed him and gave him a Best Actor nomination, the only one he's received so far.
By this time, he'd been paring down his craft for 30 years until, with the help of directors like "Translation"'s Sofia Coppola and "Rushmore"'s Wes Anderson, he'd achieved a kind of Zen purity. After that, he could choose to play the smartass clown (as in his early roles) or the serious thespian, or somewhere in between. With no agent and plenty of savings, he could pick and choose projects at whim and do only what he felt like doing. So even his lesser movies seemed like labors of love; after all, there must have been something personally appealing to him in those roles to coax him off the golf course.
Maybe that's why Murray's best movies offer a rich variety of enjoyable moments, while even his worst movies still feature intriguing performances. Even in junk, Murray doesn't phone it in. Nonetheless, he's made some bizarre choices over his 40-year career and tried some things that simply didn't work.
So raise a Suntory to
"Caddyshack" (1980). Groundskeeper Carl Spackler is one of Murray's most singular comic creations, with his peculiar mix of lust, stupidity, malice, and cool imperturbability. Whether he's chomping down on a Baby Ruth that everyone else thinks is a turd or jabbing a kid with a pitchfork while delivering that priceless monologue about the Dalai Lama, he seems to be continuously inventing new forms of deadpan hilarity.
"Stripes" (1981). The first of many movies in which Murray's coolest-guy-in-the-room character is forced to care about something larger than himself. This one, where his slacker supreme joins the Army, is one where, despite his redemption, he's still a smug, untamed bastard at the end.
"Tootsie" (1982). In one of the funniest comedies ever made, Murray proves for the first time that he can play a (semi-) serious supporting role. Sure, he's a goofball as Dustin Hoffman's pretentious playwright roommate, but he's still the straight man to Hoffman's drag queen, the bemused voice of reason when Hoffman threatens to go off the rails.
"Ghostbusters" (1984). "We came, we saw, we kicked it's ass." Not even the apocalypse fazes Murray, whose performance here is full of inventive silliness (that Chuck Berry duck walk he does to get Sigourney Weaver's attention, or the "cats and dogs living together" monologue), is at his creative peak.
"Quick Change" (1990). In the only movie he's ever (co-)directed, Murray is at his seething best as a civil servant who pulls off a successful bank heist while dressed as a clown, only to run into countless obstacles trying to get himself and his crew (girlfriend Geena Davis, childlike partner Randy Quaid) out of New York City. Asked by the bank guard what kind of bizarre clown he is, Murray says, "The crying on the inside kind, I guess." Which could be a motto for his whole career.
"Groundhog Day" (1993). Most people's favorite Murray movie, perhaps because of its pan-religious lessons about how to live a good life. Again, Murray is an arrogant jerk in need of a cosmic come-uppance, but this one is actually a cooler guy once redeemed than he was before. His distinct variations on the same actions and lines are a master class in movie acting, in how to offer a director multiple interpretations over multiple takes.
"Rushmore" (1998). With his first film for Wes Anderson, Murray's mature period begins. As mogul Herman Blume, who sees in young overachiever Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) a kindred spirit, then a surrogate son, and finally a romantic rival, Murray suggests vast depths of world-weariness, regret, and desire, all while barely twitching an eyebrow.
"Hamlet" (2000). Murray proves he can do Shakespeare in this underrated modern adaptation. He's a standout as Polonius, the old courtier who's long on advice and short on wisdom.
"Lost in Translation" (2003). It's nigh impossible to imagine anyone else as Bob Harris, the middle-aged movie star adrift in Tokyo who latches on to an equally rudderless young woman (Scarlett Johansson) for a series of sweetly platonic adventures. His sorrowful clowning is at its most pure, especially in that heartbreaking karaoke rendition of Roxy Music's "More Than This." And what wouldn't you give to know what he whispered into her ear at the end?
"The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" (2004). This is Wes Anderson's "8 ½," his premature midlife crisis movie, but Murray plays it like it was "King Lear." His floundering oceanographer -- who mourns the shocking deaths of loved ones, finds disloyalty everywhere, fights pirates, and rages at the mighty sea -- is an absurd, tragic, larger-than-life figure. Again, it's hard to imagine who else but Murray could have made this work.
"Where the Buffalo Roam" (1980). Murray's first stab at a biopic finds him playing gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson as a more extreme variation on the slobby camp counselor he'd just played in "Meatballs." The movie gets his druggy derangement but not his fierce ambition, craftsmanship, insight, or menace. Watch Johnny Depp in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" or even "The Rum Diary," and you'll see how far off the mark this portrait is.
"The Razor's Edge" (1984). This Somerset Maugham adaptation, about a World War I veteran's spiritual quest, was a labor of love for Murray, but no one was ready to take him seriously as a Zen pilgrim in a period drama during the "Stripes"/"Ghostbusters" era. Indeed, he's clearly not up to the task yet; had he made the movie 10 or 15 years later, it might have worked. Even the old version starring Tyrone Power (Tyrone Power!) as the seeker of wisdom is better than this remake.
"Ghostbusters II" (1989). Murray's heart doesn't seem to be in this sequel, and his contempt for the material seems to be oozing through every frame like the malevolent pink slime that's a major plot element here. Of course, his contempt makes his performance (and the movie) a lot more interesting.
"Larger Than Life" (1996). Never work with kids or dogs, goes the old Hollywood adage, but elephants belong on the list, too. Someone clearly thought: Bill Murray and a pachyderm -- the jokes will just write themselves! Alas, they didn't.
"Space Jam" (1996). We're guessing Murray agreed to appear in this because he's a Chicago-bred sports fan who wanted to work with Michael Jordan, or because he's the biggest smartass in movies since Bugs Bunny and wanted to pay homage to the rabbit raconteur. If you're looking for a Murray movie that blends live action with animation, try "Osmosis Jones" instead.
"The Man Who Knew Too Little" (1997). It's hard to buy Murray as a bumbling naïf, though it worked when he played the fool as an indestructible, Road Runner-like cartoon character who effortlessly ruins someone else's life in "What About Bob?" Here, in this Hitchcockian spy spoof, not so much.
"Charlie's Angels" (2000). Maybe Murray thought playing Bosley opposite three babelicious detectives would be a fun ride, but there's really not much for him to do here. There are a few moments where Murray's trickster qualities are an asset, but mostly, as on the TV series, Bosley is the eunuch at the orgy. Here, he's even the damsel in distress, kidnapped and awaiting rescue. No wonder he chose not to return for the sequel.
"Garfield" (2004). Voicing the lasagna-loving comic-strip cat was either Murray's last paycheck role or else a perverse eff-you to his fans. His dying remark in "Zombieland" (asked if he has any regrets, he replies, "'Garfield,' maybe") almost makes up for this. Almost.
"Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties (2006). He wouldn't do another "Charlie's Angels," but he did this? Is there anyone who thinks this movie is funny?
"Hyde Park on Hudson" (2012). Murray tries biography again, this time as President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His FDR isn't bad, and he's even funny compared to the stiff British royals he invites as guests to his rural New York estate for a crucial weekend of diplomacy on the eve of World War II. But the whole plot about FDR's affair with his cousin Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney) is so creepy and hard to watch that it sinks the movie. Murray is always awkward in love scenes anyway, but to watch him as a beloved president getting a handjob from his cousin -- well, it's something you can't un-see.
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