What was the last great Bill Murray performance? Maybe Broken Flowers from 2005? Lost in Translation from 2003? Nowadays, some of his best work—or at least the work that gets the most attention—is nowhere near the big screen. He shows up at bachelor parties. He crashes regular folks' engagement photos. He whips out ace Harry Caray impressions for minor-league-baseball promos. He's got an upcoming Christmas special. And maybe best of all was his impromptu Oscars eulogy for his old pal Harold Ramis. Drew Magary got it exactly right back in May: "Bill Murray's job now is to pop up in random spots and make your day, and he's gotten so, so good at it."
We love him because he's not like any other star. No other comic of his generation save for Steve Martin seems to have survived celebrity. He's remained funny and popular while showing a dramatic side. He's established himself as a legitimate capital-A actor without becoming insufferably pompous in the process. He flat-out refuses to do cash-grab projects like that long-discussed Ghostbusters sequel/reboot. Actors' actors like Robert Duvall take him seriously. And his philosophy on his work couldn't be more refreshing:
I think the only reason I've had the career life that I've had is that someone told me some secrets early on about living. You can do the very best you can when you're very, very relaxed, no matter what it is or what your job is, the more relaxed you are the better you are. That's sort of why I got into acting. I realized the more fun I had, the better I did it. And I thought, that's a job I could be proud of. It's changed my life learning that, and it's made me better at what I do.
More actors—more people in general—should follow Murray's example. You could argue that such a kick-back ethos is easy for him, given that he's beloved and treated like a national treasure already, but then you think about all the celebrities who got progressively more bitter and strange as they got older, futzing over their "legacy" and becoming charmless in the process. (Does any other star have a special section on their Wikipedia page devoted to "Golf-related work"?) Ever since his Lost in Translation performance brought him just short of Oscar glory (bested by Sean Penn), Murray seems to have decided to go his own way and not sweat the small things.
But because we spend so much time on his extracurricular activities these days, we don't necessarily focus on the work as much. Mostly, that's because the movies Murray has done lately— Hyde Park on Hudson, The Monuments Men, and the new St. Vincent—haven't been good. (Though he has been great in super-small roles in Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel.) But at the same time as his film choices have become pedestrian, he's managed to become the King of the Meme, popping up on our Facebook news feeds with surprising regularity for his latest amusing incident. As a result, we risk taking him for granted as an actor: good 'ol Uncle Bill doing his deadpan-cool thing again. Though the movies have been subpar lately, his performances have shown new depths. I just don't want us to be so enamored with his latest offscreen antics that we miss the progression.
This shift started with 2012's Hyde Park on Hudson. On paper, it seems like obvious Oscar bait, Murray playing a famous figure (President Franklin D. Roosevelt) in a feel-good drama. And although the movie was utterly disposable, he managed to add new wrinkles to his established persona: Warmer and sadder than the buttoned-down melancholy of his signature mid-career roles in Rushmore and Lost in Translation, his FDR was actually a modest little revelation, envisioning an iconic American president not as a man of great power and grandeur but, rather, a simple guy supremely comfortable in his own skin.
It was quintessential Murray, but a little different, bringing a famous figure to life with a minimum of fuss. But Oscar prognosticators were wrong to ever think of this performance as a possible contender: The Academy never celebrates turns this refreshingly low-key.
And now, after his autopilot charm in February's stillborn The Monuments Men, he's back in St. Vincent. The ads make it look like mawkish junk, which it is. (May this be the last movie I ever see about a cantankerous older guy who bonds with a sweet, precocious kid.) But the film features one of Murray's most nuanced performances. Since Rushmore, the man has cornered the market on understated sentimentality. (He can quickly crumple his comically weathered face into a sad-clown mask.) St. Vincent gives his character, an alcoholic Vietnam vet with an ailing wife, plenty of opportunities to jerk tears. But for the most part, Murray resists going full-sap, as if his inherent good taste can't allow him to fully indulge in such shamelessness.
His Vincent isn't like Jack Nicholson's rascally OCD author from As Good as It Gets: Murray doesn't play up the character's easy lovable-bastard elements. Instead, Vincent is like a crushed little sad sack, an angry asshole with a depressingly ordinary gambling addiction who really ought to die friendless. (The fact that the movie inexplicably saddles him with a pregnant Russian stripper gal-pal, played by Naomi Watts, is something you spend the entire movie trying to forget.)
Formulaic and forgettable, Murray's recent movies have been beneath him, and you can't blame audiences if they decide to focus on Quirky Online Bill Murray instead. It's telling that St. Vincent's most effective advertising campaign involved releasing the film's end-credit sequence, where Murray sings Bob Dylan's "Shelter From the Storm." It's fun, it's cool, it's adorable, it can go viral really easily, it plays into our collective good will for Murray ... and it has almost nothing to do with the movie.
Along with that Christmas special, Murray has intriguing work in the pipeline—the new Cameron Crowe film, HBO's Olive Kitteridge miniseries, the new Jungle Book where he'll probably make a perfect Baloo—and so a few recent duds needn't be a concern. His relaxed mindset has made him one of our most pleasurable celebrities. But too many subpar films and you risk being more famous for your memes than for your work.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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