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Bill Murray Will Always Be Bill Murray, for Better and Worse

Ever since ‘Rushmore’ and ‘Lost in Translation,’ filmmakers have actively weaponized the iconic actor’s persona. As Jim Jarmusch’s new film ‘The Dead Don’t Die’ evinces, that strategy has enjoyable yet diminishable returns.

Focus Features/Ringer illustration

The title of Jim Jarmusch’s new comedy, The Dead Don’t Die, refers to the movie’s zombies, its antagonists and organizing metaphor. As in his 2014 vampire comedy Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch is using horror movie tropes to cloak cultural commentary, in this case equating the carnivorous desires of the undead with larger patterns of consumerist consumption. The zombies here are driven by a yearning for the things they treasured in life—vintage cars and favorite movies—a twist that makes perfect sense for an auteur who believes in the value of art as well as artifacts; at this point in his long, influential, and admirably uncompromised career, Jarmusch’s M.O. is to make movies primarily as a showcase for the things he loves.

Bill Murray is one of those things. The Dead Don’t Die—in which Murray plays a small-town sheriff trying to wrangle the zombies—is the fourth collaboration between the pair since 2003’s Coffee and Cigarettes. That film memorably featured the star, posing inexplicably as a short-order cook, trading one-liners with Wu-Tang Clan alphas GZA and RZA over a pot of coffee; in a film filled with clever, absurdist vignettes, the meeting between the mystical hip-hop heads and the most laid-back comedy performer of all time is a highlight, not least of all for the way GZA and RZA insist on using their new pal’s entire name: “Bill Murray” over and over, like a hook or an incantation (“Don’t swallow, Bill Murray”). The joke is on the idea of “Bill Murray” as an institution who couldn’t possibly be mistaken for anybody else, and who couldn’t hide his identity even if he tried—freed up from acting by Jarmusch’s quasi-documentary pretense, he does the best imitation of himself.

The suspicion that Bill Murray is to some extent always playing “Bill Murray” is not a singular phenomenon: From Greta Garbo and James Dean to Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood, film history is filled with performers who for a variety of reasons (some purposeful, some hapless, and all specific to their particular time and place) have been conflated (or conflated themselves) with their onscreen personas. In Murray’s case, the slippage originated in his shambolic comedy style, honed onstage with Chicago’s Second City theater troupe and then perfected as a keynote member of Saturday Night Live’s late-’70s ensemble. The common denominator between Murray’s sketch work and early film roles was the feeling that he wasn’t so much acting as simply existing, while the movies around him contorted to accommodate his deadpan asides. In Ghostbusters, the contrast between the ghoulish spectacle of the special effects and Murray’s droopy, non-responsive reaction shots gives the movie its entire sense of tone.

Murray’s ability to make it seem like he’s just talking off the top of his head—which was actually the case in his brilliant, largely improvised extended cameo as Dustin Hoffman’s roommate in Tootsie—was, above all, a means of generating complicity with the viewer. Instead of signaling his craft, he played up its lack, acting more like a member of the audience who had wandered into the film than a big-screen idol; years before Mystery Science Theater weaponized extracurricular wisecracks, Murray turned even glossy star vehicles like 1988’s A Christmas Carol riff Scrooged into his own personal-commentary tracks.

The slow decline of Murray’s star power (and box office clout) in the ’90s—a decade whose cinema was defined and overrun by the hip irony he’d helped to cultivate—is a narrative that’s been told many times, as has his resurrection, inaugurated by his casting in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and officially ratified by an Oscar-nominated turn in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. In both cases, the calculus of an aging icon and a younger filmmaker worked beautifully, and in multiple directions. In both films, a student protagonist comes into the orbit of a dilapidated older man who serves as both a confidant and a cautionary tale. As writer-directors, Anderson and Coppola supplied the youthful perspective, with Murray providing a kind of plug-and-play pathos: Rushmore’s Herman Blume and Lost in Translation’s Bob Harris are both middle-aged wrecks, but their authentic sense of ruin proved that Murray’s sardonic, hangdog act, which some thought had worn out its welcome, was always destined to age beautifully.

Along with Jarmusch, Anderson and Coppola form a kind of auteur holy trinity, presiding over the later phase of Murray’s career and providing him with opportunities to further refine his style—with enjoyable if still somewhat diminishing returns. (Murray will collaborate with Coppola again on the upcoming On the Rocks.) It’s not just that Rushmore and Lost in Translation were career peaks for their creators (neither of whom has, at least in my opinion, matched the inventiveness or appeal of their sophomore features), but that they so successfully strip-mined the rich vein of deflated resilience that is Murray’s secret weapon—what the critic Kent Jones referred to as “counter-punching.” In their best moments, like Herman’s hilariously inappropriate speech to Rushmore’s graduating class (“take dead aim on the rich boys”) or Bob’s dead-eyed celebration of Suntory Time, the films give Murray the chance to occupy his sweet spot, which is disdain wrapped guardedly around despair. He’s great in both movies, and yet when he played similar notes as picaresque antiheroes in Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers or Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, the choices couldn’t help but feel more borrowed and less spontaneous, as if revelation had somehow been cruelly transmuted into shtick.

A rare example of Jarmuch working in a more or less conventional narrative mode, Broken Flowers follows Don Johnston—his name a purposeful parody of Don Juan—as he tries to figure out which of his former flames is the mother of a 19-year-old son whose existence has come as late-breaking news. Think Mamma Mia! but from Daddy’s point of view and with ABBA swapped out for Ethiopian jazz. Given the opportunity to duet with a series of brilliant actresses (his ex-lovers include Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and a bristling Tilda Swinton), Murray opts to underplay, coming off as weirdly self-effacing in his own star vehicle. It’s as if he and Jarmusch believed that the simple fact of “Bill Murray” and all the rumpled grandeur he represents could carry a character-driven comedy. The same problem happens in The Life Aquatic, where Murray, who bounced so brilliantly off of Jason Schwartzman’s manic overachiever in Rushmore, is asked to anchor a borderline-epic adventure comedy and comes off seeming overmatched. He does nail the film’s emotional climax, however, giving Zissou’s long-awaited Ahab-meets-Moby-Dick encounter with a mythical sea creature a wonderfully layered line reading, whispering “I wonder if he remembers me” with a self-deprecation that can barely mask his yearning for meaning and connection.

In his glory days, sentimentality was never Murray’s thing—one of the reasons Scrooged holds up is because his character’s third-act resurrection is so awash in phony showbiz vibes it’s as if the actor is kidding the whole concept of redemption. The same applies to Groundhog Day, a movie designed around Murray’s reactive brilliance, and which never makes the mistake of having Phil become humorless in the midst of his supernaturally mandated self-improvement. Murray’s Golden Globe–nominated performance in Theodore Melfi’s syrupy old-crank-meets-cute-kid drama St. Vincent is almost like an inverted parody of what made his work in Rushmore so sublime; instead of keeping us guessing about the true intentions of a damaged character (as he did with Herman Blume), Murray signals Vincent’s grumpy good-heartedness from the very first frame, resulting in a very long sit as he lazily takes victory laps around his custom star vehicle.

Leaving aside the art-house appeal of Jarmusch, Anderson, and Coppola, prestige cinema hasn’t treated Murray especially well. His Oscar-baiting impersonation of FDR in Hyde Park on Hudson could have been an old SNL sketch played painfully straight. The problem with using Murray as a historical figure is that he’s so indivisible from “Bill Murray” that the two levels of celebrity on display are never able to integrate. Even when he’s not actually on screen, as in his check-cashing vocal performances for Garfield and The Jungle Book, he’s incapable of fully disappearing, which is why his appearance in a very different kind of zombie movie from the one he’s just done with Jarmusch stands as his most memorable performance of the last few years. It’s not just that Murray shows up in Ruben Fleischer’s George A. Romero–spoofing Zombieland as himself, holed up in a mansion to hide from the undead hordes (a conceit that follows in the hallowed footsteps of Tom Petty’s self-reflexive, postapocalyptic cameo in The Postman). It’s that Murray’s survival is dependent on hiding in plain sight, donning corpse-like makeup to blend in with the crowd when necessary: a true man of the people, even when the people are zombies.

Murray, of course, meets a gruesome fate in Zombieland, but the way he drags out the moment of his expiration into a literal deadpan is triumphant. Such is the death rattle of a true immortal.