04 January 2010

The Razor's Edge

The Razor’s Edge: I watched Bill Murray’s weird adaptation of the classic W. Somerset Maugham novel on Netflix Instant. I hadn’t seen the thing for twenty-five years. . .and it is just as I remember it: a charming failure.

Maugham’s novel contrasts the life of Larry, a Lost Generation drop-out, with the lives of his friends, typical Western sheeple. While the novel spent more time examining the soul-less lives of Larry’s crass comrades as they ignored God for their pursuit of Western material happiness, Murray’s movie focuses more on Larry’s spiritual journey, but, alas, its depiction is entirely superficial. It’s a kind of Higher Power travelogue, as we watch Larry *gain wisdom* from an assortment of *colorful characters:* grimy-but-wise coal miners, cute Tibetan monks, etc. We see Larry move from station-to-station in life, and we must assume he absorbs enlightenment from his various encounters, for all the other characters in the movie seem to be believe he has *changed* whenever their divergent paths happen to briefly cross. If the characters in the movie didn’t act as if Larry were different, the viewer would have no other indication Bill Murray’s Larry is anything but a wandering automaton, for he gives an entirely surface performance.

Murray’s acting method is *puzzling* to say the least. For long stretches his Larry seems almost lobotomized, as he drifts around the globe, only occasionally waking from his stupor to treat his friends to a moment or two of trademark Murray goofiness, for which his friends always seem overly thankful. I have the impression Murray must have been intimidated by the source material, and thus retreated to his bizarre acting shell from fear of making ass of himself had he tried to give a more personal, emotional performance. But this is the film’s charm, the charm of an elementary school Christmas play, children acting out the birth of the Savior in second grade rote. . .we appreciate the effort, and the courage for going on stage and trying.

And we can only wish Catherine Hicks had adopted Murray’s method. Her performance as Isabel, Larry’s fiancee, is one of cinema’s All-Time worst. Hicks is just plain awful, her character a weepy dumb social climber, instead of the novel’s demonic villainess, undone by jealousy and a love of filthy lucre. The scenes between Murray and Hicks are almost unwatchable, the robotic Murray staring blankly at the soap opera theatrics of Hicks.

The film’s only authentic moments of pathos are generated by Theresa Russell’s Sophie. Russell’s performance is as magnificent as I remembered. Even with the script’s shorthand version of the novel’s Sophie, Russell manages to convince Sophie’s fall as truly tragic. Sophie’s demise is so achingly delivered, it renders unfathomable Murray’s flat response to Isabel’s confession of her betrayal of Sophie, and nearly sinks this charming mess of a movie.

The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to cinema salvation is hard.

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