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The State of Bill Murray: A Roundtable Discussion

When someone asks if Bill's a god, you say, "yes!"

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Blake Goble (BG): GZA kinda already nailed it for me: “Bill Groundhog Day, Ghostbustin’-ass Murray!” The guy’s hit a point in his career, where, not only is his filmography loaded with genuine classics, but his reputation, notoriety, and cultural capital is so strong that he can’t be discussed without pure, ecstatic frenzy. You can’t go on Facebook without seeing stories about what a genuinely chill and funny guy he is (the latest being how he showed up and spoke at George Clooney’s wedding). His sense of humor is so distinctly, spontaneously sardonic. Only he could accept a Golden Globe and get huge laughs about his trainer committing suicide and firing his agent. Say Big Bad Bill’s name, and there’s a pretty big chance you’ll evoke a litany of favorite films. GhostbustersGroundhog DayLost in TranslationCaddyshack, pretty much all of Wes Anderson’s oeuvre, the list goes on.

In short: Bill Murray, is, a god. Not the god, but a god.

Justin Gerber (JG): Blake, it’s safe to say that the next time someone asks Bill Murray if he’s a god, he should say “yes” (you teed that up too well for me; I had to take a swing). His iconic status as an elite funnyman amongst funnymen will never be taken away from him, no matter how hard he seemingly tries to give it away. A lot of people point to Rushmore or Lost in Translation as the moment Murray became a more “serious” actor. Truth is, he likely wouldn’t have done Ghostbusters had Columbia Pictures not agreed to produce his passion project: an adaptation/remake of The Razor’s Edge.

But I digress. A little. While Murray certainly hasn’t starred in heavy-duty dramatic weepies over the past decade, he has settled into dramedy territory. Twice he teamed with Jim Jarmusch for Coffee and Cigarettes and Broken Flowers, played second to Robert Duvall in Get Low, portrayed FDR in Hyde Park on Hudson, and joined George Clooney’s ensemble for The Monuments Men. His work with Wes Anderson notwithstanding (along with cash-grab projects like the two Garfield movies), every project Murray’s agreed to partake in has been a passion project, only he no longer has to make deals to get them made or to star in them.

Murray has free reign to do whatever he wants whenever he wants. Want to make a movie with Bill Murray? He doesn’t have an agent, so you have to leave him a voicemail with your pitch (no, sadly we don’t have that telephone number). With St. Vincent just around the corner, we’re about to see a side of Murray we maybe haven’t seen since the early ‘90s. I wonder if it will be worth the wait.

bill murray roles The State of Bill Murray: A Roundtable Discussion

Michael Roffman (MR): Eh, I wouldn’t go so far as to say the early ’90s. I’d argue that Murray’s work in St. Vincent is little to no different than his role as Steve Zissou back in 2004 — his strongest comedic performance of the new millennium. What this film does is ground him back in reality without the twee that’s kept the terrain relatively safe all along. He’s an even more abrasive, nihilistic Herman Blume (of Rushmore), and, in a way, it’s sort of an emblematic role of his current demeanor.

I think it’s both easy and hard to be a fan of Murray these days. For one, there are countless reasons to champion his infamous mug, many of which you already pointed out, but it’s also frustrating how he works off this anarchic trajectory that’s unpredictable and seldom appeasing. Really, outside of Zissou and the various cameos (both in Anderson’s work and in hilarious fare like Zombieland), his resume has been rather blasé.

He offered an admirable turn in Hudson, but the film itself was a slog. The same goes for this year’s forgettable Monuments Men. Prior to that, he stood out mostly in 2009’s Get Low, a Southern drama that certainly captured his finer, more sophisticated talents, but overall, he was overshadowed by Robert Duvall and virtually ignored by audiences. That’s why a film like St. Vincent is such a delight to die-hards who want to see him shine outside of the latest Internet post.

But how often does that happen? And maybe that’s a good thing?

bill murray drawings The State of Bill Murray: A Roundtable DiscussionJG: Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. But if anyone in Hollywood doesn’t care about what other people think, it has to be Murray. He’s become a walking, talking meme, and while I still find it endearing and awfully likeable, it’s begun to rub people the wrong way. Of course, most of those people would kill to have someone put their hands over their eyes, only to discover said hands belong to the man who played Groundskeeper Carl, who then says, “No one will ever believe you” and walks away. They either want to be part of the legend or dismiss it completely. I’m not sure whether or not we formed this cult of personality or Murray did, but he sure helped shape it.

As for the movies, which have sadly taken a backseat to all the net talk, maybe St. Vincent will be what we die-hards have been craving for so long. Based on the previews, I assume his titular character will end up as a schlub with a heart of gold, or at the very least tries to be good. But maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll just remain awful throughout the movie, and wouldn’t that be a nasty (fun) surprise?

Looking down the pipeline, he’s set to star as a past-his-prime music manager in Barry Levinson’s comedy Rock the Kasbah (not a Clash biopic), provide the voice in some CGI Dreamworks movie, and then follow that up by providing the voice for Baloo in one of the upcoming Jungle Book adaptations. Kasbah sounds intriguing (co-starring Danny McBride, who should play off Murray well), but the voice-only roles call to mind movies about cats, lasagna, and Mondays. Blake, what do you think about St. Vincent and what’s to follow?

BG: Oh boy, St. Vincent does look intriguing, for all the reasons you guys postulated. It seems like a fitting stop on his current path, and Murray looks like he’s playing rough and weird with a kid with maybe even a hint of sweetness that could be charming. Maybe this is his redemptive Grinch tale. Murray’s always had a gift for saying and doing awful things in a way that we forgive him for. Someone once argued with me that if Murray weren’t so unexpectedly, uniquely charming, he’d be the villain of Ghostbusters (gets pals kicked off campus, extorts money from best friend for harebrained scheme, razzes police, aggressively pursues uninterested woman, pisses in EPA’s shoes … although Walter Peck absolutely deserved it). With St. Vincent, we’ll see who he drives crazy this time.

Honestly, I always look forward to whatever he has coming up. Still do. Even if the movie he’s in is blasé, Billy has a gift for stealing scenes. Christopher Walken also has this ability. I think he’d make a wise-ass party animal out of Baloo the Bear. I’m reasonably curious about the Barry Levinson flick, too. Also I wonder how he’ll fit into Cameron Crowe’s latest next May (an untitled rom-com with Bradley Cooper), and a Lisa Cholodenko HBO mini-series with Frances McDormand next month (Olive Kitteridge). The films he’s in can be uneven, but there seem to be plenty more to look at, and the legacy truly is untouchable at this point.

To be fair, I’m probably more forgiving than you two. Example: I honestly think Bill Murray was the saving grace of the Garfields. His very specific voice managed to come through. His tone elevated cheap jokes. No, this is not praise of Garfield, but Murray’s work. Consider his glorious cameo in the Looney Tunes and Chicago Bulls commercial Space Jam. When asked by a cartoon why he’s in the picture, Murray glibly responds, “Producer’s a friend of mine, teamster dropped me off.”  Even the CoverGirl commercial/Matrix rip-off that was Charlie’s Angels felt more fun when Bill Murray was around cameoing. Look up his cameos as a pathetic Senator in the little seen Amazon show Alpha House if you can. You see a minute of crying and screaming from Bill that’s perfectly childish.

I guess I’m saying whether St. Vincent flies or falls might not depend on Murray. He’s good at just being whatever he wants to be.

MR: I think Grantland’s Kevin Lincoln said it best earlier this week: “He’s a slovenly old dude who fulfills all of our greatest hopes and dreams about how slovenly old dudes spend their time, with none of the inconvenient weirdness and interiority.” That really gets to the nitty gritty of it, at least for me. I’ve often obsessed over the way celebrities come and go — I spend way too much time thinking about Don Johnson, Sean Young, Rene Russo, or Mel Gibson — and what I’ve admired about Murray is that he’s never really played the system, and somehow he’s made it on top all along. There were rough patches, especially his three-year stretch between Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums (Do you recall his disgusting role in Osmosis Jones? Blech.), but he’s maintained this aura about him that’s actually quite enviable — for those both in and out of Hollywood.

steve zissou e1400691450114 The State of Bill Murray: A Roundtable DiscussionFor actors and actresses, he’s living proof that you’re never too old to be hip. For the average folk, he’s living proof that you’re never too old to try and be hip. From the T-shirts to the memes to the random appearances and gigs — I, for one, love that he’s planning on singing Christmas songs this winter — Murray opens the door for a little anarchism in the entertainment industry, which is maybe what the scene needs. Already, I think it’s sort of rubbed off on various celebrities; Murray’s Zissou co-star, for example, Jeff Goldblum also has a similar outlook. It won’t work for everyone, but that sort of post-modern, if not just strictly blasé approach to being a celebrity might be what younger generations want and seek out.

That’s a bigger question, though. Is Murray part of a new sort of celebrity? I see similarities between him and Goldblum, but I could even argue for Nicolas Cage, even if his stardom is awash in irony. What do you guys think?

JG: Mike, I’d agree that all three of those actors enjoy a new fame that goes beyond their movies. However, while Murray and Goldblum can look at it and chuckle, I don’t think Cage can do the same. He’s more famous now for the awful movies and financial decisions he’s made in the last 10-15 years while his solid work is constantly overshadowed. Goldblum’s films in recent years haven’t set the world ablaze, but at least they’re not typical straight-to-DVD action garbage. And Goldblum isn’t afraid to get really irreverent and silly, as his many appearances on Tim & Eric programs prove.

Where was I going with this? Oh, yes. “A new sort of celebrity.” When those three actors were starting out, there was no Internet. In the case of Murray and Goldblum, half of their careers took place in a non-Internet age. It’s as though the ‘net has caught up and made them sensations apart from their work on film. There is the fan art of an unbuttoned Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, pics of Nicolas Cage bugging out (pun intended) in Vampire’s Kiss, Murray’s aforementioned random stories, etc. It’s a new age where real fans of their bodies of work can be separate from the memes and gifs that have helped keep them in the spotlight.

For my seamless transition, let’s not forget Murray’s likely to appear in the 40th anniversary special for SNL early next year. That should be another treat (Nick the Lounge Singer, anyone?).

BG: You guys got it. Bill is aging fascinatingly, he’s got levity and ambition, and his celebrity is a new kind of memetic brand, and he is a kind of wish fulfilling, and uh…

Yeah, listen, I’m having a little fit of excitement right now and will be watching Bill’s Nick Winters intro from the SNL 25th anniversary on repeat for the rest of the day. That and Ghostbusters clips.

bill murraygb3 The State of Bill Murray: A Roundtable Discussion

MR: Look, it’s been over a decade since Murray’s Lost in Translation performance lost out to Sean Penn’s now-forgettable Mystic River role (at least to me) at the 76th Academy Awards. At the time, it was a brutal loss for a guy who had just delivered his finest work to date, and what’s worse, he knew it (did you see the disappointment on his face?) and we knew it, too. Since then, he’s taken his resume for a wild ride with some major highs (Zissou, Get Low), some ugly lows (City of Ember, two Garfield films), and a few diamond cameos throughout (Zombieland, SXSW).

St. Vincent continues that trend, and I’d argue it’s another high, but at this point, I don’t think he’s concerned with the Oscars or any sort of accolades anymore — he’s just far too casual. It’s not that he’s above it all; he’s simply operating on his own terms. And whether that’s admirable or ignorant doesn’t really matter because, well, he doesn’t actually give a damn. There’s something inspiring about that, even if that sort of logic can’t (and shouldnt’) apply to everyday life. But hey, that’s why he’s an enigma, a soul unto himself, and there’s no way in hell my Venkman action figure ever leaves my desk because of it.

Viva la Murray!

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