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Who's Cooler Than Bill Murray? (Short Answer: Nobody)

by Scott Weinberg

While formerly great SNL yuksters Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase have spent their "aging" years wavering between obscurity and awfulness, Bill Murray is smack dab in the middle of a career renaissance. Few comedic actors have been able to maintain this sort of gear-switching body of work. True, Bill's done his fair share of terrible movies, but even in those films he's doing the best he can with the material he's given. Once the smug and sarcastic hero for an entire generation of comedy fans and now the darling of several indie filmmakers, Bill Murray has given us a lot to appreciate over his nearly thirty years in the movie biz - and I'm here to pay a little tribute.

Contrary to popular assumption, Bill Murray was not a part of Saturday Night Live's original gang of "Not Ready for Prime Time Players." Bill joined the crew in 1976 for SNL's second season, filling a void left when Chevy Chase jumped ship after only one year. Before his introduction to an international audience, Mr. Murray had been a member of the National Lampoon Radio Hour alongside folks like Gilda Radner, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. He'd also done voice work in the animated comedy Shame of the Jungle and landed an uncredited bit-part in Paul Mazursky's Next Stop, Greenwich Village...but he'd soon plant a huge footprint on the Hollywood scene.

Between 1977 and 1980, Bill juggled his work on SNL while dipping his toe into the movie machine. A brief bit in Eric Idle's The Rutles was a small dose of fun, but 1979 saw Bill's first big breakout...and its name was Meatballs.

Now, go find me any guy between the ages of 30 and 40 and ask them about the first time they saw Meatballs. Then watch the smile cruise across their face. It's not because Meatballs is a brilliant comedy like Animal House, believe me. It's because the movie is wall-to-wall Bill Murray at his most goofily endearing and dryly aloof. He was that disaffected big brother we all wish we had. The "older kid" in the crowd who made us feel welcome...even though we were scrawny nerds at the time.

And Meatballs was a smash, grossing over $40 million in late-70's currency. And after only one box-office hit under his belt, Bill took his first shove backwards: 1980's Where the Buffalo Roam, in which Bill played legendary "gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson, was (and still is) a sprawling little mess of a movie. Bill did all he could to bring the insane Mr. Thompson to cinematic life but found himself hampered by sloppy screenwriting and a director (Art Linson) unsuited to the author's material to the silver screen. All that, plus Murray's core audience was not really all that interested in gonzo biopics. They wanted the Bill Murray persona that they already knew and loved. And they were about to get a few big doses of it.

Ignoring the relatively obscure skit-comedy flick Loose Shoes and the animated French film B.C. Rock, Bill's next offering was a mild little sports comedy entitled...Caddyshack. As rampant pothead and certifiably insane groundskeeper Carl Spackler, Bill gave us a character so bizarrely funny... Hell, movie freaks all over the world still quote Spackler every day! ("So I got that goin' for me...which is nice.") Caddyshack director Harold Ramis had a clever approach: hire four comedians (Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray) to inhabit four extremely disparate characters (obnoxious boor, uptight WASP, slick charmer, insane lunatic) and then just set them loose on a light framework of golf guff. Caddyshack may just be an episodic little piece of profane fluff, but damn if it's not consistently hilarious throughout. And Bill steals just about every scene he's in.

Knowing a good thing when he sees it, Bill stuck close to Harold Ramis, and the pair hung together to headline Ivan Reitman's Stripes in 1981. Not much more than a male-centric version of 1980's Private Benjamin, Stripes was conceived as a Bill Murray vehicle all the way, but the flick was even better than that. Murray and Ramis struck an instantaneous onscreen chemistry, while Reitman managed to cobble together an army comedy that would have worked even without his star comedian. But Stripes is Murray's party all the way. Here he proved he could anchor a film on his own, and that his distinct brand of world-weary, ever-sardonic everyman would appeal to a wide audience of laugh-seekers.

A clear indication of Murray's commitment to his career, Bill's next role was a very small supporting turn in 1982's Tootsie. It was here that he wrested a half-dozen scenes away from no less of an actor Dustin Hoffman. How he wasn't nominated for this brilliant supporting role is beyond me, but I guess Bill just hadn't earned his critics' stripes just yet...

So after coming off a well-admired but paltry role, Bill was primed for something huge. He got together with old pals Reitman, Ramis and Aykroyd and the result was (you guessed it) Ghostbusters. The movie grossed over $230m in 1984, a figure that would still earn "mega-blockbuster status" were it released tomorrow. The textbook definition of "big-budget crowdpleaser," Ghostbusters earned as much critical acclaim as it did repeat business. It was a massive juggernaut of a hit, and much of that can be attributed to the presence of Bill Murray. His Peter Venkman was smug and mildly slimy sort, but Murray was able to hone his cocksure delivery and exasperated tones to a level approaching high art. This was a comic actor working at the absolute top of his game.

Fresh off that success, Bill found himself hoping to branch out just a little. To that end he commissioned a screenplay for a book he'd always admired, Maugham's The Razor's Edge. Suffice to say that audiences were not biting. Watching the adaptation today, one can appreciate Murray's understated performance, but there's little else to the film that burns itself into the memory banks. Bill closed out 1984 by showing up in his friend Tom Schiller's film Nothing Lasts Forever (which is the only film in Murray's resumé that I've yet to see).

1985 saw no signs of Mr. Murray, but in '86 he joined a laundry list of cameo players in Frank Oz's Little Shop of Horrors. Christopher Guest, John Candy and Jim Belushi popped in for some jovial bits, but the all-too-brief sequence between Bill Murray (as a masochist who loves oral pain) and Steve Martin (as an insane dentist who doles out precisely that) is one for the comedy vault. Sadly, this would mark the only time my two favorite funnymen would ever work together, SNL notwithstanding.

Bill then took 1987 off as well, and it was great to catch a cameo glimpse of the guy during the end credits of 1988's She's Having a Baby...but the fans were getting restless. And since Bill hadn't headlined a flick in quite some time, we were expecting something special. We wouldn't be disappointed.

Pairing up with popcorn-flick genius Richard Donner, Bill unleashed Scrooged upon the world in November of 1988. And the fans were quite happy indeed, turning this modern take on Dickens' classic tale into a farce that was, all at once, silly and sincere, acerbic and heartwarming. I know that it holds a special place on my Christmas shelf, right next to A Christmas Story and Die Hard. It may have grossed "only" $60m in 1988 dollars, but Scrooged has a shelf life that will outlive...well, me. (As depressing as that is to consider.)

It was only a matter of time before the Sequelmonster would raise its ugly head. To Murray's credit, he'd already refused to appear in Meatballs 2 and Caddyshack 2, but the idea of a Ghostbusters 2 was a plum that no actor could refuse. Frankly, I hate Ghostbusters 2, even though Murray and Aykroyd (and Sigourney Weaver) deliver fine work throughout. It just doesn't make me laugh! Ghostbusters 2 feels completely forced and obvious and auto-pilot-esque. But that's just me. The sequel grossed over $112 million in the summer of 1989, so lots of other people dug it, obviously.

Once the 90's hit, Bill hit a great little groove:

Quick Change (1990) - Murray co-directs this tightly-paced heist comedy that made viurtually no money back in the day, but has legions of fans nowadays. Never seen it? Shame on you.

What About Bob? (1991) - Murray re-teams with Frank Oz to co-star with Richard Dreyfuss. Smart move. While it's a lightweight little comedy in every respect, "Bob" is carried upon the shoulders of the two leading men with effortless zeal. Dreyfuss spends the whole movie in a hilarious "slow burn," while Murray delivers an endearingly insecure goofball we grow to adore. It ain't high art, but it sure is funny.

Groundhog Day (1993) - Proving the age-old adage of "if it ain't broke, etc.," Bill gets back together with Harold Ramis to deliver one of the smartest and cleverest comedies of the decade. The concept alone would have been enough to get audiences intrigued, but Murray's flawless performance was the icing on the cake. If ever there were a comedy that improves with repeat viewings, it's Groundhog Day.

Mad Dog and Glory (1993) - Going more than a little against type, Murray stars (alongside Robert De Niro and Uma Thurman) in a criminally overlooked tale of love, mobsters and stand-up comedy. I wish I could say that this one's earned a cult following over the years, but I'll be happy enough to remind you that Murray is really quite excellent here.

Ed Wood (1994) - Happy to play a bizarre supporting role in Tim Burton's loving biopic, Murray shines in even his smallest part. Playing the truly arcane Bunny Breckenridge might have been considered career suicide for a lesser actor, but Bill was well past worrying by this point. And he was right.

Kingpin (1996) - I shudder to think of what the Farrelly's first comedy would have been like without Bill's contributions. Oh sure, Woody Harrelson was quite hilarious here and Randy Quaid did some fine work as well, but it's Murray's Ernie McCracken that gets all the best lines. Plus the guy spends the whole movie in a horrifically ugly hairpiece, one that proves "anything for a laugh" is a credo worth respecting.

Larger Than Life (1996) - OK, I'm not exactly sure what happened here. Either the original script was a whole lot better than the final product, or maybe Bill just had some heavy bills to pay, but this elephant comedy is pretty darn anemic. Bill does what he can, and to be fair this is kind of a kiddie flick, but there's just not enough here to sustain a whole movie. Plus, it's just not very funny.

The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997) - After this one and the elephant flick, fans were starting to get a little bit worried. And the studios sure weren't get much of a return on their investment. But I still kinda like this one. It's light and forgettable, but it yielded a lot more laughs than I expected it to. I wouldn't place it anywhere near Bill's best, but completists may find themselves presently surprised at this flick's lack of suck.

Wild Things (1988) - OK, you've already got a movie with a naked Denise Richards, a horny Matt Dillon, a naked Kevin Bacon, and a lesbian Neve Campbell. What more do you need? How about Bill Murray in a hilarious supporting role as a slimy ambulance chaser? John McNaughton's lurid tale of boobs and blood is a great little guilty pleasure, but Murray's performance is the cherry on top.

Bill took a small part in 1988's ensemble drama With Friends Like These... - and apparently he really liked that indie-flick vibe! Later that same year, Murray would be reborn with a brilliant supporting performance in Wes Anderson's Rushmore. Rare is the comic actor who can be both absurd and touching at the same time, and Murray achieves precisely that throughout Rushmore. And he obviously impressed the young Mr. Anderson...but more on that in a minute. (Again, the Academy chose not to acknowledge Bill's work...and in this case, he wuz robbed!)

Clearly enjoying his newfound (and well-earned ) status as "late-blooming critical darling," Bill signed on for Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock (1999) and Michael Almereyda's 2000 adaptation of Hamlet. But it's gotta be tough to say NO to the big-budget blockbusters, so it was Bill Murray who got the gig as Bosley in the first Charlie's Angels movie. Love it or hate it, there's little denying that Murray is a cool breeze of effortless silliness in what's essentially a big-screen video game.

2001 saw Bill appear in a widely-despised half-animated, half live-action comedy entitled Osmosis Jones - and yes, I actually kinda liked this movie too. Maybe I'm just a sucker for the guy, but I found some hearty laughs in Osmosis Jones, plus the animated "inside the human body" material was pretty entertaining. Catch it on cable one afternoon and see if I'm not crazy.

Bill redeemed himself (and then some) in the eyes of many later that year when he showed up in a flawless supporting turn in Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums. Obviously not focused on being the center of attention every time out, Bill grabbed the small-ish role of Raleigh St. Clair and stole a few scenes from folks like Gene Hackman and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Sticking firmly within the indie sphere, Bill's next three flicks couldn't possibly be more different. The first was 2001's Speaking of Sex, which I can only assume he did as a favor for old pal John McNaughton. It's a broad and as-yet-still-unreleased sex farce...and it's pretty darn awful. I saw it at a film festival and was stunned at the badness of it all, although Bill and comedy goddess Catherine O'Hara do manage to wring a few chuckles from the thing. Jim Jarmusch enlisted Bill to do a great little sequence for his Coffee and Cigarettes, which hit limited release in 2003. And just a bit later that year came Bill Murray's big splash:

Lost in Translation apparently clued the rest of the world into a fact that a lot of us knew already: that Bill Murray is a damn good actor. I won't imply that there's a difference between comedy and dramatic acting, because I think it's impossible for Bill Murray to NOT be at least a little bit funny. It's like asking Ahnold to be a skinny weakling. Then again, comedy actors have always earned the short end of the admiration stick, as if Al Pacino is instantly more worthy of praise than John Cleese is. Yes, it's tough to make an audience cry, but it's also pretty damn hard to make an audience laugh. Bill Murray does both in Lost in Translation, and the Oscar nomination he (finally) earned was the crowning achievement in a career laden with quality.

But yes, there's more! Unfortunately, some of "more" includes the absolute worst movie of Bill Murray's career, otherwise known as Garfield. But hey, after a career of such consistency, I can forgive one amazing dungpile like this one. Plus, you just know that doing the voice of an animated cat took Bill maybe two weeks to do. And he probably got one of the biggest paychecks of his career for it. (Let's keep in mind that Bill has six sons.) The logic probably was "Hey, if I don't voice the animated cat then they'll just ask Mike Meyers or Jim Carrey to do it, so why not earn a check?" So Garfield sucks, but Murray earns none of that wrath. Especially when you consider...

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which is Bill's third collaboration with Wes Anderson. And if The Life Aquatic isn't quite as successful as The Royal Tenenbaums is, at least we get a two-hour highlight reel of Bill Murray at his most hilariously dry, droll and brusque. I liked the movie quite a bit, but I absolutely loved Murray's performance.

So what's next for Bill Murray? A period-piece drama that co-stars Andy Garcia & Dustin Hoffman and a part in Jim Jarmusch's next film. Sounds good to me.

So just take a moment to think back on those actor / comedians who've helped to fill your life with laughs, and you'll understand the admiration I have for this guy. The fact that I've always had a Bill Murray to appreciate makes the guy feel like a lifelong pal. And if I ever happened to come across Bill Murray in an elevator, I'd be satisfied to just shake his hand and say "Thanks."

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originally posted: 12/24/04 17:25:50
last updated: 01/17/05 05:22:55
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