(On DVD, June 2017) I don’t yet have enough points of reference to make a definitive statement, but in-between movies such as Caddyshack, Meatballs, Police Academy, many others and now Stripes, there’s a very specific strain of early-eighties underdog comedy in which the institutions of American life (golf, summer camp, police, the military) are brought down to size by unrepentant slackers. Bill Murray leads Stripes with his early brand of nonchalant anarchism, taking a stand against the madness by defeating it with a complete lack of care. Stripes’ curiously ambiguous attitude toward military training is interesting: While its most ridiculous aspects are lampooned, it is a film made with the co-operation of the Army, and it does suggest that the end result can be incredibly rewarding for the right people. By the end, the slackers are defeating the Reds and rescuing their own. In-between, we do have a remarkable rah-rah-RAH sequence in which audiences are reminded that they are American and thus exceptional, and a weird-yet-expected shift from aimless sketch training comedy to more focused last-act suspense. The DNA match with Caddyshack is obvious with Murray and Harold Ramis sharing top billing, and Ivan Reitman handling directing duties. Stripes is messy by modern standards, but it’s not without its own charm.
(On DVD, May 2017) As a quintessential golf comedy, Caddyshack’s reputation precedes it in many ways. A favourite filler on golf TV channels, it seems to enjoy a consecrated reputation as something of a lowbrow classic. Taking a good look at it, however, may reveal a film weaker than expected. The plot zigs and zags in mystifying fashion, largely uninterested in the action of its putative teenage leads but all too eager to showcase comic routines by Rodney Dangerfield, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray. It makes for a clash of comic sensibilities, considering how their styles don’t necessarily belong in the same narrative. The most egregious instance of this is Dangerfield’s quasi-stand-up routine blasting the age and status of a country club members—the movie pretty much stops dead during that time. Another physical comedy bit involves nautical hijinks, while Chevy Chase has his own comic-seduction routine, and Bill Murray kind of dawdles into the movie with his own absurdist take (He’s got that going for him, which is nice) and a groundhog exists in a separate explosive movie. Very little of this actually fits together, making for a disconnected but occasionally very funny film. Caddyshack’s impact makes more sense once you find out the chaotic nature of its production and the various ways then-novice director Harold Raimis altered the film is post-production. The result is a mess, but an entertaining one—if only for seeing Chase, Dangerfield and Murray each playing up their comic persona, leaving the other aspects of the film far behind.
(On TV, March 2017) There’s an exceptionally tricky balance at the heart of What About Bob? that would have been easy to mishandle. Making a comedy about a blatantly annoying protagonist taking down a respectable professional sounds terrible as a premise—how to balance the humour and the darkness? Fortunately, this is a movie with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss as assets, and a pretty good sense of structure in the way the script is put together. The initial impression are that the patient (Murray) is an annoying pest while the psychologist (Dreyfuss) is a competent family man. But as the story progresses, things start shifting. Our annoying pest proves resourceful, kind and entertaining. Our competent psychologist turns out to have issues of his own, alienating much of his family. (Along with a crucially-important couple of neighbours). When the two clash, the patient progresses and the psychologist regresses, all the way to an explosive climax. What About Bob? wouldn’t be what it is without the combined acting talents of its lead (with Julie Hagerty turning in a small but very enjoyable performance as the voice-of-reason.) To its credit, it also becomes funnier as it goes along—the first thirty minutes are a bit too awkward and off-kilter to be truly enjoyable, but the film ensures that it becomes more and more acceptable to laugh along as it progresses. While I’m not sure that What About Bob? is a classic, it has aged pretty well in the past 25 years, and manages to play with some tricky material.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) Some will say that Garfield is terrible or misguided. I just think it’s dull. A bog-standard kid’s movie with animal characters, Garfield is noteworthy simply for its association with the comic strip, for the CGI lead character and for hearing Bill Murray’s disinterested dulcet tones as the lead cat. While Breckin Meyer is likable as Jon and it’s always nice to see Jennifer Love Hewitt, at some point in your life you have to make choices and consider whether what’s worth your time. Garfield certainly raises questions, most notably why-oh-why did they not use CGI for all the animal characters? Blending CGI Garfield with live-action Nermal and Odie completely misses the point of a movie adaptation of a comic strip, and even if the answer is likely to be” money”, then no-Garfield would have been preferable to a botched Garfield. Otherwise, there’s almost nothing here to interest adults—the script is painfully aimed at younger kids (simple plot, stock characters, dull dialogue), and there isn’t much in terms of cinematic sophistication. To be fair, nearly everybody (including Bill Murray) has had negative things to say about Garfield. The only grown-up suckers who see the film now are either parents or people who didn’t listen.
(Second or third viewing, On TV, December 2016) There have been countless takes on Dickens’ A Christmas Story, but Scrooged is still my favourite. A blend of cynicism and hard-won sappiness, Scrooged’s darker sense of humour, backed up with Bill Murray’s unique style, makes it a fantastic holiday viewing. Its depiction of an amoral modern age is still very much on target even twenty—no—thirty years later, while its struggle to reconcile itself with a happier view of Christmas seem more deserved than most. (On the other hand, I’m not sure that its lead protagonist will be as open-hearted two days later, but that may be part of the point.) Bill Murray anchors the picture, but there are good supporting performances by Bobcat Goldthwait and a hilarious Carol Kane as a slap-happy Ghost of Christmas Present. I get that the movie divided audiences and reviewers upon release, but you’ll never be able to convince me that it’s not a Christmas classic. If anything, I’ll bet that it plays far better in today’s ironic age than it did upon first release.
(Second viewing, On TV, December 2016) I’ve seen Ghostbusters II so long ago that I’m not sure that what I remembered was from the movie or the videogame. (I definitely remembered the soundtrack, though.) That, in itself, is a pretty good capsule summary of a relatively forgettable sequel. Bits of Ghostbusters II are bad; others are uninspired; others are competent. Some are all three, such as the idea of the Ghostbusters being discredited frauds—it’s patent nonsense after the events of the first film, but it does lead to a few good jokes here and there. The sequel cheerfully takes place five years after the fact and confronts how its characters have moved on (or not). There are a few choice gags here and there, and the basic idea of New York being overrun by slime that feeds on negative emotions is rich in possibilities—and while Vigo makes for a poor antagonist, the use of the Statue of Liberty is inspired. The courtroom scene also works well. As for the actors, it’s a mixed bag: Bill Murray is close to self-parody while the rest of the cast is more or less up to their usual tricks. The special effects are … not good by today’s standards (the subway sequence is notably subpar), and many of them don’t even have the quaint charm of the original: There’s a lot to be said about atmosphere in boosting the impact of special effects, or at least the viewers’ indulgence in suspending their disbelief. Ghostbusters II amounts to a serviceable sequel, one that does feel as if it’s coming from the same place as the original, but not one that equals the standards set by the first film.
(Netflix Streaming, June 2016) I expected a bit more from the idea of Bill Murray as a veteran impresario finding new talent in war-torn Afghanistan. The premise seems fit to accommodate a lot of comic potential, not to mention Murray doing what he does best. While Rock the Kasbah does manage to meet a few of those expectations, it seems limited by budget and imagination from delivering a truly satisfying result. The clash of culture between American hedonism and Afghani resilience is never completely explored, Kate Hudson seems wasted as something of a super-prostitute, Murray doesn’t get to disengage his persona’s autopilot and the film’s conclusion manages to weaken the impression left by the film’s better second quarter. Rock the Kasbah could have been a much sharper geo-sardonic comedy, but it seems happier to coast on caricatures and attitude. There are unexplainable script issues (Why get rid of a certain character entirely? Why bring in another main character so late? Why waste strong actors in small roles?) While Bruce Willis once again shows up for the paycheck, at least Leem Lubany is a revelation as an Afghani singer, and Murray does get a few moments of hangdog charm. Fitfully amusing, Rock the Kasbah nonetheless leaves us wanting more. There have been far better comedies exploring the twenty-first century’s geopolitical weirdness for this one to register as particularly interesting.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2015) Mill Murray’s career took a very stranger turn after Lost in Translation, fulling embracing a sad-clown phase that probably reached its epitome in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers. Here, Murray plays eccentricity on an almost entirely melancholic register as a rich but sad computer businessman who learns from an unknown source that he’s got a son. Driving around to see his exes in an effort to find out who sent the letter and what happened, Murray’s hangdog charm is just about what saves Broken Flowers from overpowering sadness. Shot blandly and featuring a deliberately maddening ending that doesn’t solve anything, this is the kind of film that either works as a succession of moments between actors, or simply infuriates. (The road-movie structure of the film, in which the narrator travels, meets an ex, escapes and repeats, doesn’t help.) It’s the kind of stuff that some people like a lot. On the other hand, it’s about as dull as Murray has been on-screen, and it may help explain why ten years would go until (in St-Vincent), he’s take another lead role: the sad-clown phase of his career being fully realised, what else was there for him to do? Certainly not go back to the earlier anarchic brat phase of his career; onward, then, to respected elder statesman of comedy, best used in small roles by quirky directors such as Wes Anderson.
(Video on Demand, March 2014) Bill Murray is an international treasure, but he doesn’t star in movies as much as you’d think: He usually holds striking supporting roles, and so St. Vincent is his first lead role in nearly a decade. What a role it is, though: As an aged Vietnam veteran with serious misanthropy and gambling issues, Murray gets to be a bit more than a cool gag. When he comes to care for a precocious 12-year-old boy, much of the film’s main dramatic arc becomes predictable… but certainly not the odd subplots and small details of the story. St. Vincent may play from a generic template, but it has enough originality to carry through, and a certain deftness of execution to make it even more palatable. Proof can be seen in a restrained and unexpectedly sympathetic Melissa McCarthy, in her best and least annoying role since Bridesmaids. There’s a solid dramatic underpinning under the laughs and while the result may be too poignant to be purely hilarious, it has a lot of heart, however predictable the ending can be.
(On Cable TV, October 2014) As much as I like the topic of The Monuments Men, as much as I find its actors likable, as much as I appreciate the attempt to deliver an old-school WW2 drama that eschews action theatrics in favor of more subtle motivations (all the way to “does saving art justify personal sacrifice?”), I don’t think that this film is as good as it could have been. It’s hard, of course, to condense a real-world story as big as the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program into a short entertaining piece of Hollywood cinema, but The Monuments Men often takes shortcuts that ring false, and remains sedate when it should be a bit more energetic. This is writer/director/star George Clooney’s movie, and so a bit of the blame should go to him: his genial, middle-of-the-road approach to the material ends up feeling unfocused and dull. The script has no choice than to go to episodic scenes, but many of them simply lead nowhere and don’t build upon each other. The comedy clashes against the drama rather than support it, and it’s hard to say whether this should have been better as a snappy 90-minutes thriller or as a longer TV miniseries. The Monuments Men does build some narrative tension late in the proceedings, but much of its first half is one-thing-after-another episodes with stock characters and familiar situations. But while the film may not best attain its own noble ambitions, there’s something quaintly charming, even comforting about the way it is put together: Big-name movie stars, classical direction, clean cinematography and straightforward plotting. The film wears its idealistic convictions right where everyone can see them, and makes little attempt to humanize its enemies. (The best scene even climaxes with a sarcastic “Heil Hitler!”) And then there are the actors, from Clooney indulging into his familiar old-school movie star charisma, to Matt Damon once again being a good sport (trust me: his French in the film truly is atrocious, but not in ways that can be blamed on Montréal), Bill Murray warping time and space through sheer coolness, and a lengthy list of known names all playing along. The Monuments Men ends up in that vexing netherworld where it can be both disappointing yet entertaining at the same time, a comfort film that feels a bit too long and disjointed for its own sake.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) I had trouble enjoying writer/director Wes Anderson’s earliest films, but with 2007’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and now Moonrise Kingdom, things may be turning around. I’m not the same person who saw Anderson’s first films as they appeared in theaters, obviously, and Moonrise Kingdom is a lot like Fantastic Mr. Fox in that it takes Anderson’s fascination for the twee presentation of flawed characters and puts them in a more broadly accessible context than, say, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Simply put, here we get kids acting like adults rather than adults acting like kids and that makes a huge difference: As Moonrise Kingdom follows the repercussions of two 12-year-olds eloping together, the film feels charming, comic and affectionate at once. A strong cast of eccentric adult characters (Bruce Willis as a policeman, a pitch-perfect Edward Norton as scoutmaster, hangdog Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton as a social services meddler) acts as a good foil for teenage protagonists Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward. Moonrise Kingdom’s whimsical tone seems perfectly controlled, and it’s hard to watch the film without looking forward to the next trick to come out of Anderson’s fertile imagination. It’s an odd film, with comparisons to be found mainly in Anderson’s cinematography (well, maybe that of Jared Hess as well), but it works better than it should. I’m calling Moonrise Kingdom a pleasant surprise, especially given that I expected practically nothing from it. I may, however, expect more from Anderson in the future.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) Curiously enough, I’d never seen Groundhog Day until now, nearly twenty years after its release. It’s one of those films quoted/referenced so frequently that it’s easy to feel as if you don’t need to see the actual footage to know about it. But that’s wrong in predictable ways: This film hasn’t become a minor enduring classic for no reason: Past its high-concept, Groundhog Day is a solid, well-made movie with an appealing lead character perfectly played by Bill Murray, many small pleasures, terrific scene-to-scene narrative momentum, an eye-catching Andie McDowell, and a deeply satisfying thematic subtext. Spiritual, funny, thought-provoking and unpretentious at once, it’s a film that clicks on nearly every level. Its annoyances and contrivances are easily swept under the rug, and what remains is a terrific film even after two decades. The spiritual growth of the lead character is inspiring, and is enough to make anyone think about how they’d act in similar situations. As a fantasy, it may not be particularly rigorous, but thematically it’s completely satisfying. Don’t miss it, even if you think it’s way too late to see it.
(On DVD, January 2009) There are many ways of portraying the legend of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, and I suppose that making him the anarchic spirit in the middle of an episodic comedy is just as good as another. But what have looked like a great idea nearly thirty years ago doesn’t seem quite so successful today: Where The Buffalo Roam doesn’t have the right pacing for a comedy, and seems to place far too much confidence in the viewers’ knowledge of Thompson’s antics to fully establish itself on its own merits. Thompson (played by Bill Murray, sometimes unrecognizable under the Thompson mystique) becomes as side-character in his own movie, most often playing a Tasmanian devil wreaking havoc on the uptight men and women of the narrative. But even that becomes a problem when the film tries to get some sympathy from the viewer, setting up a conflict between two friends that seem incapable of living in the rest of the world. Those with a good knowledge of Thompson’s checkered history will recognize a number of episodes from his best years, although the heroic amount of mind-altering substances consumed on-screen distracts from the fact that Thompson could be a truly kick-ass writer if he set his mind to it. Today, the film becomes a footnote for fans of either Murray or Thompson, but its interest remains limited to a curio, not a particularly enjoyable film.
(Second viewing, on DVD, September 2009) Months and a few dozen books by/about Thompson later, the movie hasn’t improved at all: It’s a disjointed, unfunny, unfaithful mess. The dramatic arc between Thompson and “Lazlo” never makes sense (since to do so, Thompson would have to become the responsible one), and Thompson’s character never earns any sympathy through his actions: Where The Buffalo Roam thinks it’s enough just to say “you squares don’t get it, man”. On the other hand, Thompson fans will have a moderate amount of fun spotting the references to his history or bibliography, telling when separate incidents are conflated, or when particular quirks of the writer are used for a few seconds. This being said, it’s a meager return for a rather poor film: There’s no doubt that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas remains the best Thompson film yet.