|2.0||Larger Than Life||1996|
|2.5||The Man Who Knew Too Little||1997|
Groundhog Day casts such a long shadow that it dwarfed another fine Murray performance as Bunny Breckinridge, Ed Wood’s friend and collaborator in 1994’s Ed Wood. It’s a small role overshadowed on one side by the goofy bigness of Jeffrey Jones as bogus psychic Criswell, and by the tragicomic sadness of Martin Landau’s Bela Lugosi on the other. Still, Murray manages to make an indelible impression in a cast filled with showstoppers and scene-stealers. He makes an understated turn as a man who manages to hold on to some of his perpetually embattled dignity, despite professionally occupying a spot somewhere underneath the sewer. It’s not a goofy comic solo like Little Shop Of Horrors; it’s a performance by a real actor that foreshadows a lot of the stellar character work Murray went on to do.
In 1996, Murray returned to playing the kind of smarmy, narcissistic bastards he specialized in on Saturday Night Live with his scene-stealing turn as legendary bowler Ernie “Big Ern” McCracken in Kingpin, the Farrelly brothers’ follow-up to Dumb & Dumber. Murray plays the legend of the lane as a showboating phony with an endless array of toupees and gaudy outfits, each more horrifying than the last, a pathetic peacock lost in a bubble of unjustified self-love. A good portion of the Farrellys’ montage-heavy sports comedy is devoted to Murray’s post-strike vamping, and the film benefits from having an actor who doesn’t need good lines, or any dialogue at all, to be funny.
That same year, Murray lent his presence to a different kind of sports comedy in Space Jam, playing a family-friendly version of himself opposite the vast, comedy-killing black hole that is Michael Jordan. At least the Chicago sports buff got to hang out with Michael Jordan for a while, so he has that going for him, which is nice. Also in 1996, Murray re-teamed yet again with Howard Franklin for Larger Than Life, a family-friendly comedy featuring Murray as an inept motivational speaker who receives an elephant as an inheritance and must travel to Los Angeles to deliver it to an animal trainer. In the featherweight comedy, a lost, defeated Murray is reduced to playing sidekick to an outsized pachyderm. In the film’s only memorable sequence, a speed-crazed trucker played by a young Matthew McConaughey, who after Larger Than Life was able to cross “steal a movie from Bill Murray” off his bucket list.
Even at the time of its release, 1997’s The Man Who Knew Too Little felt like a throwback, both for Murray and for comedy as a whole. By that point, studios had all but stopped making goofy, family-friendly PG comedies about well-meaning klutzes who wind up embroiled in international intrigue. Murray nevertheless commits himself to the well-meaning idiocy of Wallace Ritchie, a good-natured doofus who works at a Blockbuster in Des Moines, and stumbles into international espionage when he mistakes a genuine spy situation for the interactive live-acton spy game his brother signed him up for as a birthday present. Murray mugs his way through the film with an idiot grin of stupefied satisfaction as Wallace bungles from one life-threatening situation to another, oblivious to the real danger he’s in. It’s a fun, goofy physical performance in a trifle unworthy of Murray’s talents. Murray was simply too smart and talented to go on playing the fool deep into middle age. Soon, he wouldn’t have to.
|2.5||Cradle Will Rock||1999|
|4.5||The Royal Tenenbaums||2001|
|2.0||Speaking Of Sex||2001|
Rushmore changed the course of Murray’s career so dramatically that it serves as a useful dividing line in his filmography. Wes Anderson’s breakthrough film cast Murray as Herman Blume, a millionaire businessman cursed with ineffable sadness. He’s amassed millions and created a family without ever losing his adolescent alienation, leading a life with no joy in it until he stumbles upon Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), the poorest student at Rushmore. Max overflows with such bravado and self-confidence that early in their relationship, Herman asks him what his secret is, since he seems to have it all figured out. The truth is that Max is every bit as broken and lost and confused as Herman; he just isn’t ready to admit that to himself, let alone to the world, so he hides behind extracurricular activities and epic quests, most notably to win the heart of melancholy teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), a doomed mission that puts him in direct conflict with Herman.
Fischer and Blume emerge as strangely simpatico figures: a boy with nothing in the world but energy and hope, and a man with everything but those qualities. Rushmore ingeniously pairs a boy in a furious hurry to grow up and a man all too cognizant of the compromises and sadness of adulthood, one who wants more than anything to discover a portal to the innocence and optimism he presumably once felt. In Murray, Anderson found an actor singularly equipped to play a man with the body of a broken-down middle-aged alcoholic, and the impish spirit of an eternal child.
Rushmore didn’t change Murray’s image so much as it deepened and enriched it. The hint of melancholy that long shaded Murray’s performances evolved into an exquisite misery, reflected in the oceans-deep pain in Herman’s eyes when, late in the film, he answers a question about how he’s doing now that his wife has divorced him with the heartbreaking understatement, “I’m a little bit lonely these days.”
From the sublime to the ridiculous: John McNaughton’s 1998 erotic thriller Wild Things is a lurid, hyperventilating softcore romp and cult classic remembered primarily for an oft-rewound threesome involving stars Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell, and Denise Richards. In a film that doesn’t distinguish between intentional and unintentional laughter, Murray delivers an inspired comic performance as Kenneth Bowden, a sleazy lawyer fond of powder-blue suits and medically unnecessary neck braces who represents Dillon’s Sam Lombardo, a one-time Florida “Educator Of The Year” with an unfortunate predilection for sleeping with his students.
For better and for worse (mostly for worse), Murray has gravitated toward passion projects, often those written and directed by his fellow actors. Those include Tim Robbins’ 1999 ensemble film Cradle Will Rock, a wonderfully misguided attempt to transform a rabble-rousing tribute to the WPA’s populist spirit into a typically upbeat, mindlessly commercial Touchstone comedy. The film is a bloated mess that treats leftist social history with Pollyanna-like chipperness, but Murray is heartbreaking and hilarious as Tommy Crickshaw, a down-on-his-luck ventriloquist reduced to teaching his curious craft to a pair of incompetent, opportunistic upstarts played by Tenacious D’s Jack Black and Kyle Gass. The following year, Murray was one of the gallery of familiar faces in Michael Almereyda’s ballsy modern-day adaptation of Hamlet, starring Ethan Hawke as a grunged-out slacker Hamlet. Murray turns Polonious into one of his signature pompous phonies, an avuncular figure who doles out some of the most famous advice in literature, and adopts the pose of the benevolent mentor as a cover for his own greed and calculation.
Following Murray’s creative revival with Rushmore, his career grew increasingly schizophrenic, alternating passion projects done for no money with passionless projects done solely for money. 2000’s Charlie’s Angels, a wildly excessive adaptation of the campy 1970s jiggle-fest, directed by music-video veteran McG, falls into the second category. Murray flounders in the role of Bosley, the hapless go-between working with a trio of sexy female agents and their mysterious, never-seen overlord. Stuck in a series of campy getups and silly hairdos, Murray is palpably uncomfortable. (Murray opted out of the obligatory sequel after publicly feuding with Lucy Liu.)
Murray reunited with Wes Anderson for 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums, this time as Raleigh St. Clair, a bearded, Oliver Sacks-like neurologist married to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margot Tenenbaum, the melancholy object of desire for many of the characters in the film. It’s a small but pivotal role that Murray invests with a sense of romantic longing and confusion once Raleigh comes to realize that the woman he thinks he knows is fundamentally unknowable. Murray was essential to Rushmore, but here, he lets himself be just another muted color (think an autumnal grey or a faded blue) in Anderson’s cinematic palette.
In 2001, Murray reconnected with McNaughton for a third collaboration, this time playing yet another sleazy lawyer in Speaking Of Sex, an ill-fated romp about the complicated legal wrangling that ensues when a neurotic psychiatrist (James Spader) sleeps with with a sexually frustrated married woman (Melora Walters). It’s a pleasure watching old pros Murray and Catherine O’Hara play off each other as rival attorneys who find love in each other’s arms, and Murray is a hoot as a toupee-wearing, cigar-chomping sleazebag. But otherwise, this is the kind of randy, vulgar nonsense that resorts to Benny Hill-style sped-up film to goose the flailing slapstick shenanigans.
In 2001 Murray also made Osmosis Jones, a misbegotten live-action/animated comedy that reunited him with the Farrellys and put him back in the kind of goofy-dad role his Ghostbusters co-star Aykroyd specialized in, before he more or less dropped out of the business to peddle vodka and conspiracy theories. Murray plays Frank, a zookeeper whose body doubles as an animated metropolis devoted to keeping this shambling mess of a human being alive and just barely functioning by any means necessary. It isn’t a terrible idea for a film, but the filmmakers lazily steer the material into the tired world of the mismatched buddy-cop comedy. This underwritten role in a bland film wouldn’t be a highlight even if Murray’s big scene didn’t involve his character energetically vomiting on a teacher played by Molly Shannon. Is it any wonder Murray was increasingly drawn to the artsier, less vomit-intensive corners of film?
|4.5||Lost In Translation||2001|
|3.0||Coffee & Cigarettes||2003|
|1.0||Garfield: The Movie||2004|
|4.0||The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou||2005|
|2.0||Garfield: A Tail Of Two Kitties||2006|
Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation’s casts Murray as Bob Harris, a fading American movie star who travels to a posh hotel in Tokyo to make $2 million shooting a whiskey commercial. The minions of the ad agency that hired him shout commands that are, per the title, never translated, adding to the film’s sense of cultural dissociation. Murray lets the lapses in Bob’s façade of strained politeness tell the story of a man who’d fallen out of step with the world even before he entered a foreign metropolis where he towers over everyone, where he feels like no one understands him because they literally don’t. On the run from a life seemingly dominated by interior-decorating requests from his nagging, never-seen wife, Bob finds a spiritual kinship with Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a similarly adrift American at the hotel with her scatterbrained photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi). Charlotte and Bob bond over dizzy nights spent drinking sake and singing karaoke, and over their mutual sense of isolation in a Tokyo that shimmers like a jewel box.
Coppola’s distressingly broad conception of contemporary Japanese culture sometimes threatens to transform Bob into a straight man in a city full of crazies. Lost In Translation can be mean and cheap around the edges; it makes its protagonists’ melancholy stand out even more sharply by surrounding them with caricatures. But Murray and Johansson’s chemistry lends the film soul, and its romance is all the more powerful for never being consummated. Lost In Translation famously ends on a wonderfully enigmatic note, with Bob whispering something unintelligible into Charlotte’s ear that seems to give her a sense of peace and optimism (not unlike the kind Murray talked about in the Reddit AMA when asked about his most memorable fan experience). An electric sexual and romantic charge courses through Bob and Charlotte’s relationship, but even Charlotte seems to see him as a father figure and spiritual mentor more than a love interest. That’s part of the appeal of Bob Harris: He saves Charlotte from the ennui and alienation she’s feeling, but only because, consciously or unconsciously, he knows he needs to be saved himself. The ending also taps into something essential to Murray’s appeal: the sense he has some special wisdom to impart, if only we’re lucky enough to have him whisper in our ear.
Given Murray’s penchant for working with revered auteurs, there’s some small reason to believe his claim in the Reddit AMA that he agreed to take on the role of lasagna-loving, Monday-despising fat cat Garfield out of a mistaken conviction that it was written by Joel Coen of Coen brothers fame, and not Joel Cohen of Garfield: The Movie fame. Whatever the reason, Murray’s voice and old-school king-of-the-slobs persona take center stage in the 2004 hit. There isn’t much to Garfield: The Movie, plot-wise or otherwise, so Murray desperately tries to inject life into the lethargic proceedings with a voiceover performance straining with manufactured ’tude. Murray had every reason to phone it in, to deliver a performance as lazy as the character he’s desperately trying to breathe life into. Instead, he delivered an intensely committed performance that somehow just makes everything worse. It’s a measure of how badly Murray’s performance misfires that 2006’s Garfield: A Tale Of Two Kitties represents a distinct step up in quality from its predecessor, because its Prince And The Pauper premise focuses substantially less on Garfield and more on new, less terrible characters like Tim Curry’s Prince.
Murray’s weakness for the passion projects of his fellow actors helps explain his appearance as a jester-like man of mystery with no name in Andy Garcia’s bloated, ponderous 2005 historical drama The Lost City. An alcoholic beverage forever in his hand, Murray’s character, credited only as “The Writer,” speaks in riddles and circles, in a performance that’s equal parts gratingly precious and pretentious.
But elsewhere between Garfields, Murray delivered two of his finest, most demanding dramatic performances in movies that again cast him as sad, broken men looking for meaning and connection. The first, Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, takes place in the long shadow cast by the violent death of Esteban, the best friend and most important collaborator of the titular protagonist, a depressed superstar oceanographer inspired by Jacques Cousteau. Murray’s Zissou was once a beloved international celebrity whose underwater derring-do and old-school heroism inspired generations of children all over the world, including earnest young pilot Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), who might be Zissou’s long-lost son, but probably isn’t. As the film opens, Zissou and the crew he rules like a benevolent cult leader have fallen upon hard times and are scrambling to raise money for their next documentary, a revenge picture of sorts, in which Zissou will hunt down and kill the magnificent jaguar shark that killed Esteban.
Anderson’s flair for production design is on full and often magnificent display here, most notably in a ship that resembles the world’s largest, most elegant children’s playset. Though the relentless stylization can be emotionally distancing, Murray’s performance never lets viewers forget the sadness at the film’s core. The pain in Murray’s eyes and the quiet rage in his voice serve as constant reminders that this sometimes silly, sometimes self-defeating, always narcissistic man is motivated by almost unbearable grief. The Life Aquatic can be glib and jokey, an action-adventure whose action sequences are all delivered with sly, winking irony. Yet it finds a beating heart in Zissou’s grief and his attempts to bond with Ned, a surrogate for all the kids he inspired from afar, but who could never get close enough to their idol to see what a broken but strangely magnificent man he is. Murray attains the state of noble rot that characterizes many of his late-period performances.
It certainly characterizes the sad existential state of Don Johnston, Murray’s character in Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 film Broken Flowers. (It’s Murray’s second collaboration with Jarmusch, after his contribution to 2003’s omnibus collection Coffee & Cigarettes, which memorably cast Murray as himself, serving coffee to an overjoyed but bewildered RZA and GZA, who can’t quite believe that “Bill ‘Ghostbustin-Ass Groundhog Day’ Murray” is working as a waiter.) Like The Life Aquatic, Broken Flowers also turns on a complicated issue of parentage, as Murray’s man-child, who has eschewed the responsibilities of adulthood deep into middle age, wrestles with a fatherhood he never chose.
Broken Flowers casts Murray as a solitary computer mogul whose gorgeous yet empty home stands in stark contrast to the riotous utopia of domesticity characterized by his friend and next-door neighbor Winston (the always wonderful Jeffrey Wright) and his Ethiopian family. Don’s life of sorrowful inertia is shaken up when his latest beautiful, disappointed girlfriend (Julie Delpy) storms out. Then he receives an anonymous letter alerting him to the existence of an adult son he’s never known, but the letter omits the son’s name and all other identifying details. With Winston’s help, the aging Casanova sets out on a road trip to uncover his son’s identity, a quest that sends him spiraling through his back pages as he revisits various loves of his life, from a NASCAR widow (Sharon Stone) to a spacey “animal communicator” (Jessica Lange) to a hippie turned Stepford Wife (Frances Conroy).
When Murray first played a dramatic role in The Razor’s Edge, he clung to his comic mannerisms and tics. Murray still charms women and small children and waxes sarcastic at various intervals throughout Broken Flowers, but by this point, he had long since transcended the need for such crutches, delivering a powerfully spare performance. Murray has refined his movements and gestures such that he doesn’t seem to be moving or gesturing at all; in Broken Flowers’ shattering final moments, he attains an existential ideal of existing onscreen rather than acting, of being rather than performing. The Murray of Lost In Translation, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, and Broken Flowers has transcended the irrepressible showiness of youth, the need to impress and leave a dent in the universe. In these late-period performances, Murray is like a musician who’s refined his style by eliminating all the unnecessary notes and self-indulgent vamping.
|3.5||The Darjeeling Limited||2007|
|3.0||City of Ember||2008|
|3.0||The Limits Of Control||2009|
|4.5||The Fantastic Mr. Fox||2009|
|2.5||Hyde Park On Hudson||2012|
|0.0||A Glimpse Inside The Mind of Charles Swann III||2012|
In real life, Murray tends to pop up in unexpected places. The Internet is littered with stories about magical nights when Bill Murray showed up out of nowhere and served tequila shots to wowed fans until 4 in the morning. That reputation lends an additional charge to Murray’s appearance as himself in 2009’s Zombieland, which casts him as the legend who shelters the protagonists after a zombie plague renders the world all but uninhabitable. Zombie-kicking badass Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) gets to live out many people’s fantasies by smoking pot and playing Ghostbusters with Murray as they plot their next move.
A spiritual journey to the East sounds custom-made for Murray, who first visited that territory in 1984’s The Razor’s Edge, but he merely pops in for a cameo in Wes Anderson’s slight but charming The Darjeeling Limited as a harried man who misses a train caught by Adrien Brody ’s protagonist. To Murray, roles in Wes Anderson movies must feel like gifts sincerely delivered and graciously accepted, even when the role is as minor as that of Clive Badger, a lawyer who advises the dashing titular hero of 2009’s utterly delightful Fantastic Mr. Fox. Murray is once again playing a lawyer, albeit this time of the animated and animal variety, one who tends to express outrage at his clients’ actions and exhibit unexpected skills with explosives.
Murray also popped up for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in the inessential 2008 reboot of Get Smart. The movie trades in the sly spoofery of Buck Henry and Mel Brooks’ beloved television show for generic action-comedy, but Murray gives the film a little old-school vaudevillian kick in his cameo as Agent 13, a hapless operative reduced to standing watch inside a tree. It’s telling that even when Murray turns in a cameo in a big, mainstream blockbuster, his character and performance are still defined by loneliness and isolation. That same year, Murray delivered a more lengthy and memorable performance as the unethical mayor of a dystopian underground city in the grim children’s film City Of Ember.
In his king-of-the slobs phase, Murray played men who lived with no consideration for the future. He aged into playing characters so acutely aware of their mortality that casting him as a funeral director in 2009’s Get Low almost counts as a sly joke. The film is primarily a showcase for Robert Duvall, who delivers an appropriately larger-than-life performance as Felix Bush, a small-town eccentric whose neighbors regard him as a legend on par with Paul Bunyan. He’s a heavily bearded tornado of a man who makes a rare visit into town to make arrangements for a “Funeral Party” that will let everyone in town come up and tell a story about Felix, along with a raffle whose grand prize is Felix’s property. After a more respectable funeral-home director turns him down, Felix travels to the failing business of Murray’s Frank Quinn, a nattily attired, neatly mustachioed businessman who takes the strange gig partially out of desperation, and partially as a challenge. Like so many of the characters Murray has played throughout the years, Felix is a bit of a sleaze and a charlatan, but he doesn’t entirely lack honor, and Murray gives him real warmth.
One of the strange quirks of Murray’s late-period career is that he often looks glaringly out of place, no matter where he is or who he’s playing. This is particularly true of his role as “The American” in Jim Jarmusch’s moody, hypnotic, sometimes unbearably pretentious road movie The Limits Of Control. Isaach De Bankolé stars as a stoic assassin, credited only as “The Lone Man.” Throughout the film, The Lone Man travels through Spain soaking in philosophical tirades from a series of big-name guest stars (Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael García Bernal) before climactically meeting his prey, a powerful businessman played by Murray. Death is coming for many of the characters Murray has played late in his career, but seldom as directly as it is here. Murray’s justifiably terrified titan of industry, who whines about cultural corruption in the face of certain death, is perhaps the ultimate manifestation of a character he played in the later years of his career: a man whose wealth, power, and position fail to protect him from the cruelty and randomness of life.
2012’s Moonrise Kingdom reunited Murray with Anderson, who cast him as Walt Bishop, a lawyer whose orderly world is turned upside down by the disappearance of his melancholy young daughter and his wife’s affair with a local police officer. Though Moonrise Kingdom involves camping and Bill Murray, Walt isn’t the idealized older brother/mentor figure of Meatballs. He’s a grown-up who’s just as lost, confused, and in need of guidance as a daughter whose pain he feels deeply, but can’t understand. As with Fantastic Mr. Fox, the film’s extreme stylization can be emotionally distancing, but in its third act, Moonrise Kingdom attains a striking power as its various threads come together and its delicately constructed eggshell world threatens to crack. Moonrise Kingdom confirms Murray as a minimalist of rare talent, a man gifted in getting the most out of every syllable.
Murray has long played characters with complicated, emotionally fraught relationships to fame, power, and celebrity. Murray’s performance as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the precious 2012 historical drama Hyde Park On Hudson has him treating all those elements as a lark, which is part of what makes it so anomalous in his career. Murray gives a performance of tremendous surface charm, playing the president as a hard-drinking, womanizing, twinkly-eyed father figure to a nation, but also to the many women in his own personal harem. It’s a depressingly superficial look at a complex man that gives into the kind of hero-worship and sentimentality Murray and his films have long eschewed.
Murray’s more recent film choices have been dictated by relationships and friendships more than commercial calculation. This has helped reinvigorate his career, but it also explains his presence in bizarre vanity projects like 2010’s Passion Play and 2012’s A Glimpse Inside The Mind Of Charles Swann III. Passion Play was a longstanding passion project of Murray’s friend and Scrooged co-writer Mitch Glazer, about a world-weary jazzman who engages in a trippy romance with a circus performer with angel wings. The results somehow play out even more pretentiously than that description suggests, and Murray, who stepped in at the last minute when another actor opted out, is given nothing to work with as a powerful gangster named Happy. When the only laughs in a movie with Bill Murray are of the unintentional, derisive variety, something has gone terribly awry.
Just about everything went terribly awry with A Glimpse Inside The Mind Of Charles Swann III, directed by Roman Coppola, the brother of Lost In Translation director Sofia and the sometimes-writing partner of Murray’s pal Wes Anderson. The insufferable quirk-fest reduces Murray to a sidekick of the sentient smirk that is comeback-hungry star Charlie Sheen, just another flesh-and-blood paper doll to be outfitted in outrageous costumes and plunked inside the elaborate dollhouse sets that are the film’s flimsy reason for being.
In 2014, Murray teamed up with his Fantastic Mr. Fox co-star George Clooney for The Monuments Men, another yarn about a charismatic leader who assembles a madcap group of unlikely heroes for a daring mission. The film casts Murray as a gentle Chicago architect and art collector who, in his big scene, weeps openly in the shower while a phonograph from home plays his granddaughters singing a Christmas song. It’s a moment of unabashed sentimentality that’s rare for Murray, one in which any hint of reserve or distance breaks down and he’s just a granddad weeping because he’s many thousands of miles from where he wants and needs to be.
In this moment, the prince of irony, the sultan of righteous sarcasm and retired king of the slobs is just a big old softie blubbering because he can’t be home for Christmas. It would be unfortunate if lumbering, underwhelming prestige pictures were Murray’s future, but there’s something strangely noble about seeing an icon of hipness like Murray play a moment in such a defiantly uncool way. Murray contains multitudes, and at least one of those multitudes is a sad old man. It’s also further evidence that time has not diminished Murray, it’s only enriched him.