Bill Murray's Brilliant Sadness

When thinking of the post-Ghostbusters Bill Murray, whose career is being featured this month in our Film Vault, one tends to assume that his acting career has taken a turn for the serious in recent years, a veritable Tom Hanksian transformation, if you will.

This apparent sea change is especially pronounced in films like Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) and Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (2005), but can even be detected in his contemporary lighthearted fare – the consistently woebegone, yet slyly amusing characters he has created under Wes Anderson’s direction spring immediately to mind.  

In assessing Murray’s career, however, I tend to view this distinction as somewhat problematic because ever since I’ve cared to pay attention, Murray has seemed to behave as a complete cinematic wildcard, capable of being in just about any type of film at any time.

To illustrate, while the initial 20 years of his filmography may have been dominated by characters cut more from the cloth of his Carl Spackler from Caddyshack (1980) than from that of the previously mentioned roles, films such as Where the Buffalo Roam (1980), The Razor’s Edge (1984), and even Scrooged (1988), I feel, are demonstrative that Murray has always been quite capable of tremendous range throughout the entirety of his career. 

Moreover, despite the mental separation between laughable-Murray and serious-Murray that may seem necessary, when you ask folks about his career, more often than not they’re going to hit you with some bit about how he’s a real card or quote a few lines from What About Bob? (1991) rather than opining at length about his dramatic role in Cradle Will Rock (1999) – which just so happens to be rather funny as well.

I suppose this is one aspect of Murray’s career that I’ve always enjoyed, no matter the given film: his ability to blend seamlessly the funny and sad sides of life. This is probably why my personal favorite of his films happens to be Broken Flowers. In Jarmusch’s film, Murray plays Don Johnston, an aging womanizer sort who has begun to unwind a little after his most recent girlfriend decides to leave him.

The film is tremendously morose at times, and it should be said that not much of anything good happens to Johnston as the film progresses. Yet, there’s brilliance in Murray’s sadness; he somehow manages to make everything happening to and around his character more comedically charged simply by paring a miserable demeanor with incredibly subtle physical reactions. 

In this clip we’ll see Johnston being awakened by his overly eager neighbor, who has become obsessed with sorting out Johnston’s troubled life since he himself seems incapable of doing so.

I think we’ve all felt this type of pain before, the seemingly endless, facedown-on-the-couch-numb sort of aching. I know I have, and having experienced it helps me appreciate Murray’s characters all the more. When you get right down to it, our pain and the stuff that causes it can be viewed as widely entertaining when considered within the appropriate context, a film for instance.

I mean, good news is all well and fine, but the really entertaining Facebook exchanges always seem to involve at least a minor bummer or two. What compels us to report these things to our peers is likely the same motivation that drives Murray’s character to even answer his phone here, the comfort and reassurance that can only be found through one’s friends. After all, if he really wished to be left alone, why answer at all?

Murray’s blending of comedy with sadness brings me to the topic of his frequent collaborations with Wes Anderson. Beginning with Rushmore (1998), Murray has at least appeared in every Anderson film to date, second only to Owen Wilson.

I know that many critics have come down hard on Anderson’s reliance upon pop music in order to advance his storylines, but as someone willing to acknowledge the pivotal role the music of the Ramones has played in his life, and having additionally relied upon the songs of Cat Stevens to get me through at least one emotional crisis, it is difficult for me to take issue on this point.

For me and the apparently vast numbers of others considering Anderson’s success, the songs that accompany these scenes help the viewer connect to the onscreen characters through a shared pop-culture experience – and when they’re acted out by a performer like Murray, the effect is all the more acute. For example, this scene from Rushmore uses a song by the Kinks to demonstrate how apathetic Murray’s Herman Blume has become with life:

Pretty sad, right? But also pretty darn funny too, I think. Or how about the finale of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)? Here, Murray and David Bowie together communicate feelings of personal growth and triumph so successfully that I’m nearly moved to muster up about ten to twelve of my nearest and dearest, clad them in similar attire, and take to the open ocean every time I view the film:

And this is nothing new for him. Case in point, this deleted scene from Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) in which Murray’s Bunny Breckinridge takes center stage:

Gripping, am I right?

In sum, while it would be foolish for me to suggest that Murray’s incapable of popping up in some pieces of garbage from time to time, I can honestly state that his performances, despite the overall quality of a given film, have been dependably entertaining – some even so much so as to elevate a film that might otherwise be a complete waste of time.

As a matter of fact, I’d wager that if the day ever comes that I elect to hold the 9-volt battery to my tongue that watching Murray’s Garfield (2004) would equal for me, I fully expect to be at the very least modestly entertained by his voice work. This, of course, I will steadfastly deny if asked thereafter, but you get the point. He’s just always going to be Murray, no matter what he’s in, and there’s something really comforting about that. I think this quote from a July 2010 interview with Murray published in New York Magazine illustrates what I’m getting at:

I’ve just done the films that I liked, I didn’t have any plan, but I did end up having a run of them that are all kind of on the serious side. Some of them are downright sad and I gotta get out of that . . . I’ve sort of decided that I want to start making funny movies again.

So mark another career transition for our friend Murray, or don’t. Perhaps it’s best just to cast our distinctions aside and just keep watching and laughing and crying. Whatever it is that keeps you going to the movies.

About the Author

Michael Wells

Michael Wells is an A/V Technical Assistant at the Kansas City Public Library. He is adept at baking cookies, following directions, awkward silences, and falling over from perfectly stable positions. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in history from UMKC and is currently working on a Master's Degree in secondary-level social studies education. Michael describes his taste in film as "other" on good days and "none of the above" on bad.

Watch This: Rumpled Anarchy, the Library's Bill Murray retrospective, plays through September in the Central Library's Durwood Film Vault. All showings are free.