From gophers, “Ghostbusters” and groundhogs to “Broken Flowers” and beyond, Murray evolves into something much more meaningful.
By Adrienne LaFrance
Hard to believe that 25 years have passed since a happy-go-lucky Carl Spackler regaled “Caddyshack” audiences with his meeting the Dalai Lama, from whom he was promised total consciousness at the time of his death (“so I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.”). But a lot has changed since Bill Murray’s role as a wacky golf-course groundskeeper in the 1980 classic.
Murray became best known on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s. He was a ghostbuster in the 80s, a curmudgeonly news anchor in “Groundhog Day” (1993), and even portrayed Hunter S. Thompson in the lesser-known “Where the Buffalo Roam” (1980). But over the course of the last decade, Murray’s roles have fused into a single uncannily-similar character. After a string of box-office busts in the mid-90s, Murray stepped into the role of Herman Blume for “Rushmore” (1998), and, with few exceptions, little has changed on-screen for him since.
The deadpan expression on his worn face meets the twinkle in his gray eyes and, time and time again, Murray’s characters live out the story of a middle-aged man who, though surrounded by fame, fortune and beautiful women, has lost something. Time and time again, he remains apathetic about its absence while he pursues it anyway. The sincerity with which Murray has embraced his recent roles, particularly in “Rushmore,” “Lost in Translation” (2003), “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004) and “Broken Flowers,” (2005) makes one wonder whether this is a case of art imitating life. At 56, Murray is in position to reflect on a lifetime of achievement, and cinematically depicts men who are going through that same stage of introspection about their own lives. His characters are the prototypical baby boomer, searching externally to solve internal crises.
An icon for America’s largest generation, Murray is one of millions who was raised on the idea of hope for a better future and now lives in the stark reality of a present inconsistent with the optimism that characterized their youths. In his three most recent acting roles, Murray’s characters’ quests revolve around relating to unknown youth, literally and metaphorically.
In “Rushmore,” Murray’s Herman Blume forges a father-son-like relationship with a boy to whom he can relate better than his own children, while in both “Broken Flowers” and “The Life Aquatic,” Murray tries to bridge a connection between himself and the son he never knew he had. In “Lost in Translation,” Murray plays Bob Harris, an internationally-known actor in Japan to endorse a brand of whiskey when he meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a woman half his age and equally hapless.
With these roles, Murray seems to have shaped a genre so specific to him that each film blurs together in the same way that makes one forget the differences between “Sleepless in Seattle” and every other cutesy Meg Ryan flick. But audiences who love to hate any actor who fails to diversify himself onscreen are notably less harsh with Murray and his adherence to the roles that have recently buoyed his career.
Audiences believe in Murray’s characters. But is it because the roles are so accessible to him and therefore make them seem real, or that the disenchanted individuals he portrays are so accessible to us because we relate to their plight? Probably a little bit of both. We watch the futility he faces with something that is less like pity and more like understanding. Without a smile or so much as a crinkle of movement across his lined forehead, Murray makes the mundane poetic in a manner that contends hyperbole. He illuminates the tragic beauty of reality with a sad gracefulness, bringing an emotional element to his characters that audiences empathize with; so much so that we half-expect to find Murray on a barstool at the nearest swanky hotel in the lonely company of a neat scotch.
And we want more for him than that. We want him to be happy. We want him to achieve total consciousness. Perhaps that what he has been searching for, and perhaps that is what we want for ourselves.