Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Time to "Get Low"

I wanted to like "Get Low" more than it really deserved. It's a small film, full of older, very familiar actors who I have been watching for ages. It's also a period American film, and a comedy with next to no objectionable material, so I was biased in its favor from the start. You might wonder how first-time director Aaron Schneider ever got this film off the ground and managed to assemble a cast of this caliber, but the story provides such irresistible characters, it's no wonder the likes of Robert Duvall and Bill Murray got involved.

"Get Low" is set in the American Midwest sometime in the 1930s, when horse-drawn carriages were not yet an uncommon sight. After years of isolation in a small homestead in the woods, a hermit named Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) comes to town one day, in search of a funeral. He's turned away by the reverend, but happens to catch the attention of Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black), a young man who works for the local mortician, Frank Quinn (Bill Murray). In spite of Felix's bad reputation and antagonistic demeanor, Frank decides that this is an opportunity his ailing business cannot afford to pass up. He and Buddy take on Felix as a customer, and discover that what he's really after is a funeral party that will take place while he is still alive, so that he can attend himself. And so follows Felix Bush's return to civilization as he prepares for the momentous event. While Frank mounts a campaign to entice everyone "with a story to tell" about Felix Bush to attend the funeral party, Felix reconnects with an old love, Mattie (Sissy Spacek), and struggles to exorcise the personal demons that drove him to shun human company in the first place.

The first half of "Get Low" really had me hooked, because the performances are excellent. Robert Duvall is note perfect as Felix, a plainspoken, no-nonsense old-timer who is as stubborn as his beloved mule. When we first see him in full beard, and wilderness trappings, Duvall is almost invisible in the character, but then the story rolls on, and he emerges, little by little. The process of his redemption and renewal is a joy to watch. However, Bill Murray nearly steals the show as Frank Quinn, a born opportunist and fast-talker who isn't quite as slick as he wants to be, and turns out to be a decent guy underneath. His frustrations and clashes with Felix produce some of the film's best moments. And it's always good to see Sissy Spacek, adorable as ever, who can still summon deep wells of hurt and regret at a moment's notice. Gerald McRaney and Bill Cobbs also show up for good turns in smaller roles, and Lucas Black holds his own against both Duvall and Murray in multiple scenes, despite portraying a fairly unremarkable character.

So it regrets me to inform you that the script has some substantial story problems and one almost fatal flaw, which is that it fails to stick the ending. The entire story builds up to the funeral, and summons up all this tension and suspense over what will be said there and the secrets that might be revealed. What we get is certainly a resolution, but not one that feels very satisfying, and it inevitably comes off as a letdown. The last fifteen minutes feel awfully rushed, and I have to wonder if the production ran out of time or money or some important bits got cut out for whatever reason. However, "Get Low" gets so many important things right. Schneider nails the tone, which is a little more sentimental and pastoral than the norm, without ever becoming maudlin. Likewise, the pacing is on the slow side, but it never feels like the movie isn't moving forward. The visuals, especially the shots of the woods, are very easy on the eyes. Finally the dialogue, written by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, is wry and sharp and frequently very funny.

So there's a lot to like about "Get Low," and I'm grateful for any chance to see Duvall, Spacek, and Murray still doing good work as they get older. Such gentle, low-key comedies are a rarity these days, and this one left me with nothing but a sense of affection for everyone involved. Even with the flaws, I have to appreciate the effort it must have taken to mount this production. Here's hoping we see more like it in the future.

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