Friday, August 20, 2010

Get Low (**1/2)

Directed by Aaron Schneider


I'm often decrying a film's lack of character development and how certain directors don't trust the actors to do what they need to do. Well, there's another extreme when discussing that argument. There are certain times when a film director depends on the strength of his actors so much, as to shirk the responsibility of executing their own filmmaking duties. With Get Low, first-time Aaron Schneider director does this, and I'd probably be a little more perturbed by it if he didn't have such a tremendous cast--and of course, it is his debut film.

The film takes place in nineteenth century Tennessee, in a small town where everyone is aware of the mysterious legend of Felix Bush (Robert Duvall). He's holed himself up in his woodland home, having no connection with anyone except for the few children who come by to throw rocks through his windows. After a friend of his passes, Felix strolls into town on his mule for the first time in decades, and his presence creates a stir. He asks the local preacher if he can have a funeral party while he's still alive, but the preacher refuses. He leaves in anger and on his way out, he beats an uppity townsman who provokes him. Felix leaves back to his home, ready to hermit himself for another couple of decades.

Felix's funeral party plight does catch the ear of Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), the alcoholic owner of the local, troubled funeral home. Felix is not only offering a more-than-fair share, but is also holding a raffle for whoever attends the party, with the winner winning his home after Felix dies. Frank is opportunistic, and along with his young partner Buddy (Lucas Black), approach Felix and offer to put on his funeral party. Frank and Buddy grab Felix, shave off his wily beard and trim his hair, and put him on a local promotional tour for the town event of the year. Word spreads quickly about crazy Felix Bush's funeral party, and the money begins pouring fluently into Frank's office.

Felix requests all those who attend to provide one story they have heard about him. This isn't a particularly loaded request since Felix's disappearance form society has allowed his legend to grow toward folk tale proportions. There are only a precious few people who actually know the real Felix, including Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek) with whom he used to have a strong relationship with, and the Reverend Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs), who used to be Felix's best friend. Mattie and Charlie both hold keys to a secret that has sat inside Felix for the entire forty years of his isolation. What becomes apparent to Felix, Frank and everyone else involved with the party, is that what Felix truly wants with his funeral party, is for someone to help him tell his secret.

The film opens with an ominous shot of two-story house on fire, with an shadowy figure running away in a panic. We can only presume that this man is Felix, considering how quickly we learn of the violent legend of Felix. As we hear more and more about this supposed "secret", we know that eventually we will learn the story about behind this horrible act of arson. When you build such an obvious set-up throughout an entire movie the way Get Low does, it better pay off in a big way. It leads up to Felix's heartfelt speech at his own funeral party which, while beautifully delivered by Duvall, has nowhere near the emotional effect that we as an audience have been expecting for 90 minutes.

Get Low may have been unbearable if it weren't for the inspired performances from Duvall, Spacek, and Murray. Duvall, already established as one of the truly great American actors, does give Felix a lot of humor. Robert Duvall is one of the few actors who can imbue a character with legend just by stepping on the screen. Spacek, as Felix's former lover, brings her usual flow of sincerity. Bill Murray gives his best performance since 2004's Life Aquatic, giving the film some much-needed liveliness and snarkiness. Overall, the cast delivers for the first-time filmmaker, but mostly because he depends on them so much, with very little input from him behind the camera.

I liked Get Low enough. It moves at a slovenly pace, but I'm not sure if that didn't help the film's overarching thesis: life is certainly short, but sometimes it's painfully long. The film was supposed to come out in 2009, but distribution errors lead to it coming out this summer. I don't see many people going to see it, when most women can see Eat Pray Love and men can gorge on The Expendables. Many have been talking about Duvall's performance since it made the festival run at the end of 2009, and its certainly a good one, though its nowhere near his best work from the 70s. Most of the power of the performance comes simply from his presence on the screen. Few actors have earned that level of reputation, and Duvall is near the top of that list.

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