Sunday, September 5, 2010

Veterans Getting Low

I don’t usually spend a lot of this space talking about actors, because I think too many movie reviewers do little more than that, and often in hopelessly subjective terms (basically they like him, they don’t like her). But Aaron Schneider’s Get Low doesn’t allow you much opportunity to do anything else. Anyway, the topic was in my mind because when I saw the film, the trailers were unusually irritating, mostly for the people in them. First was Philip Seymour Hoffman in Jack Goes Boating, which looks like scene after scene of look-at-me showboating. Then came Carey Mulligan and others in Never Let Me Go, which looks like scene after scene of being haunted and wistful. Then Paul Giamatti in Barney’s Version, which looks like scene after scene of irritating attitudinizing (and yes, I’m completely aware it’s based on a classic Canadian novel). Then something else equally off-putting, which I’ve mercifully already forgotten. Of course, trailers frequently make movies seem less subtle than they actually are. But honestly, it was like a ten-minute film essay on the sledgehammer crassness of current cinema and its supposed standard bearers.

Get Low

So then I watched Get Low. Set in the 1930’s, it depicts Felix Bush, a small-town hermit (Robert Duvall) who’s been holed up on his farm for some forty years (the first thirty-eight are the hardest, he says), spawning all kinds of local legends. Sensing time running out, he suddenly decides to organize a “funeral” for himself, at which he’ll give away the posthumous rights to his land in a lottery, hear what people say about him, and most importantly deliver the story behind his long self-confinement. Local undertaker Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) needs the work, despite the assignment’s unique challenges. Sissy Spacek plays a widow who knew Bush decades earlier, and is linked in some way to his life’s big secret.

The film’s getting lots of positive reviews, mainly for the actors, and indeed that’s its only facet of even modest distinction. Any dramatic impact depends on anticipating what Bush is going to reveal about himself, but the film drops so many hints along the way (including in the very first shot) that it’s entirely predictable in general if not specific terms. There’s really no thematic or other strength there to override these narrative shortcomings – the film doesn’t have more at its centre than the generalized redemptive, humanizing notions of every other TV drama. And Schneider’s direction, which frequently seems overly fussy, doesn’t evoke any kind of period flavor – people dress in old-time clothing and drive vintage cars, but that’s about it.

Duvall and Spacek

So to the actors then. Duvall, who may well be a major Oscar contender for this (he previously won for Tender Mercies), is of course an esteemed professional, but I have to admit he’s never been a personal favourite of mine. There’s an authoritarian quality to his approach that in low-grade material (and he’s been involved with a lot of it) frequently brings out a strutting, self-righteous vein. Get Low flirts with this problem in its early stretches, allowing him to have a field day with the taciturn, rifle-wielding, get-off-my-property thing. The performance becomes significantly more interesting as he loosens up a bit – he’s very amusing and touching in a scene where he tries to impress and entertain Spacek – but this only shows up the earlier lack of subtlety. Duvall really is astonishing though in his climactic moment, where the old man strains his inner resources to evoke the pivotal event in his life, seasoning the story with eccentric sound effects and asides. Unfortunately and bizarrely, Schneider undermines his efforts by repeatedly cutting away to Spacek’s reactions as she listens.

Spacek was surely most interesting in her career’s first decade, when her quirky, deceptively reticent persona added astonishing texture to a potentially hollow creation like Carrie and to more naturalistic material like Coal Miner’s Daughter (note that both she and Duvall, like Jeff Bridges this year and Reese Witherspoon a while back, won their Oscars for playing country singers, so wow, those awards really do capture the diversity of the world we live in). Since then though, she’s mainly delivered plain contributions to trivial pictures, with only In The Bedroom perhaps tapping those earlier chills. In Get Low she plays, basically, a nice old widow; the part itself, and the film’s handling of her, doesn’t encourage any great depth (the film, in general, idealizes women, which may be quaint, but isn’t the same as doing them a favour).

Murray and Cobbs

And then you have Bill Murray, to me one of the most intriguing resources in American cinema, although seldom optimally deployed (his artistic highpoints include Groundhog Day, Lost In Translation and Broken Flowers). Murray’s most interesting recent work - other than cultivating a considerable personal legend – may have come on the Letterman show, where he dived into a water-filled dumpster, hitting his head in the process (perhaps on a piece of floating garbage) and then dried himself off during the ensuing interview, during which he seemed unusually reflective and, actually, serious. Murray is obviously extremely wayward, constantly reacting against the norms of pop culture, and yet – one guesses – too diffident about everything else not to be happiest at least somewhere inside the tent. Perhaps the archetypal recent story is his claim that he took on the task of voicing Garfield the cat in Garfield: A Tail Of Two Kitties because he mistook the film’s co-writer Joel Cohen to be one of the esteemed Coen brothers.

He does well with Frank Quinn, but it’s a pretty simple character as written – an individual of possibly shady origins, possibly susceptible to the temptation of so much lottery money stuffed under the mattress (or in this case, hidden in the casket). Similar to the way he approaches his career, Murray plays some elements of the character straight down the middle, and others with eccentric, dry abstraction. It’s always great to watch, not a waste of his capacities like some of his roles, but hardly a full deployment of them either.

Along with these three, the film also has the less-heralded veteran presence of Bill Cobbs, one of those guys whose name you might not place even though you’ve seen him fifty times. In his late seventies now, his scenes with Duvall convey a very satisfying sense of mutual delight in the encounter, only lightly camouflaged by grumpy old man exteriors. Even there though you feel a missed opportunity – Bush’s choice of a black man as his prime spiritual confessor seems to demand a bit more from the film than politically correct colour-blindedness. Anyway, on the whole, you wish Get Low tried more often to get high on its amazing resources, but there’s just about enough there to send you home quietly content. You might want to skip the trailers though. Get late!

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