- Rated PG-13
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All photos © Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by Bob Westal
ith long hair and a never-trimmed beard, Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) is the kind of local character all American small towns seem to have, at least in the movies. An ornery and possibly violent hermit, he has no problem firing his gun into the air and scaring the hell out of any small boys who might stray onto his property on a dare. Fortunately for his Depression-era Tennessee town, this isn't a horror flick, so he doesn't descend into cannibalism or start chopping up local floozies. That's a good thing, too, because there really was a Felix Bush.
Instead, Bush turns up in the church of the local minister (Gerald McRaney) one day with a wad of money, asking if he can buy a funeral, but with one condition. He wants to have it while he's alive, so he can see what people actually think of him. The kindly minister is taken aback, but the local mortician, a former used car salesmen (Bill Murray) desperate for a lucrative gig, gives his ambitious, family man assistant (Lucas Black of "The Fast and the Furious: Toyko Drift") the task of selling an elaborate prehumous funeral to the somewhat intimidating and scary client.
Now, from this set-up, loosely based on an actual incident from Tennessee lore, and the presence of Robert Duvall and Bill Murray, you might well be expecting a sort of low-key comedy or comedy-drama with more than its share of folksy black humor. Director Aaron Schneider, however, makes only passing attempts to generate modest laughs, usually unsuccessfully, and concentrates instead on stormy melodrama with a hint of hellfire. Indeed, as preparations for the early bird memorial continues, two key figures from Felix's past turn up with a series of increasingly tragic revelations: A pretty widow he was once involved with (Sissy Spacek), and his former close friend, an African-American minister (Bill Cobbs) whose ethnicity is, strangely enough for Jim Crow America in the 1930s, never remarked upon by anybody. This Tennessee town appears to be the most racially enlightened in the U.S.A.
Director Aaron Schneider is an experienced cameraman, television director of photography, and already an Oscar-winning director for 2003's "Two Soldiers," a short film adaptation of a story by William Faulkner. Clearly he and his collaborators are not attempting a monster hit here and want to make an old fashioned drama with old fashioned virtues, which is commendable. (The press materials describe "Get Low" as "an eight-year labor of love for producer Dean Zanuck.") Nevertheless, the lack of humor is more than matched by a near absence of compelling drama.
It's also a bit confusing. Schneider seems to miss key moments, leaving us foggier than we should be about the facts of the story. Moreover, he tends to drown dramatic scenes in too much music – a common error for directors in trouble. The DP-turned-director even proves to be his own worst enemy in terms of the visuals, as the photography seems to be composed for the sake of clichéd rural prettiness, not storytelling.
The screenplay by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell should also take its share of the blame. The key dramatic revelations of the earlier sins of Felix Bush prove to be, without spoiling things, not particularly edifying and very much in line from other movies with essentially sympathetic antiheroes in the lead. By making Bush's past sins not as bad as they might be, the movie proves itself to be suffering from a crucial failure of nerve. It's not horribly bad, just entirely lacking in terms of making it worth spending a couple of hours of a person's time.
When the story and direction are this uncertain, there really isn't that much the actors can do. Robert Duvall in the lead does bring out what humor and pathos there is to be had. Bill Murray, on the other hand, gives an unusually dull performance in a somewhat gruff role that ordinarily would have gone to an actor more like Gerald McRaney. I've never seen him less funny, which would be fine if there was something here to replace humor. Sissy Spacek, a fine actress we don't get to see enough of these days, does better in a more limited role, as far as she is allowed to go. I could say the exact same thing for McRaney and Bill Cobbs ("The Brother from Another Planet"), a seriously underrated actor of great humor and warmth whose character, at least, survives the movie. (In 2001, HBO viewers saw Cobbs die twice within the span of a few weeks on both "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under.")
Considering the major talents on display here, it might be tempting to get all forlorn about all these great talents presumably wasting their time in a bad movie, albeit a sincere effort that was clearly not an attempt to make a boatload of money for anyone. Still, failures have to happen, and if all movies – even all earnest movies with great actors in them – were never kind of boring, the good ones wouldn't be nearly as big a deal.