Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) is resident the boogeyman in the woods, taciturn, bearded and ornery, living alone outside some wintry Midwestern town in the cabin he built 40 years ago, shotgun at the ready should any varmints need a fright. We’re between world wars here, not that the affairs of the world cause many ripples in Bush’s hermetic existence. Bush hires former Chicago car salesman-turned-funeral home director Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) to arrange his own funeral-party, a stab at realizing the universal fantasy of hearing what the bastard-hypocrites say about him when he’s gone without having to actually depart. Everyone is invited.
The cast is pretty great across the board. As Quinn’s protégé, Lucas Black is charged with the task of playing straight man to Murray, not necessarily an enviable position when you consider that Murray’s approach to comedy is unfailingly deadpan—he’s already his own straight man—and though sometimes at odds with the uneven tone of Get Low as a whole, Murray’s performance, watchful, allusive, and bristly as his John Waters moustache, is about the closest to understanding the real strengths of the material. Fortunately Black holds his own just fine. He plays the action, letting the comic moments simply breathe, grounding himself in his character’s moral fortitude and genuine ambition to do right by Bush.
Duvall cultivates Bush’s enigma scene by scene. He’s very comfortable here and in fact very good, unconcerned with what the others are up to since Bush is holding all the cards in every scene—in keeping with the trickstery nature of his preemptive death rites, he’s always one step ahead of everybody else. Even when Get Low ushers him onto the climactic podium to spill his guts, Duvall understands that his vulnerability is to displayed but in no way is it to be challenged, the whole death trip steering us not toward an open forum but a one-on-one between Bush and his maker—and, okay, the wonderful Sissy Spacek with her glowing eyes—that the public is merely allowed to be present for.
Herein lies the problem with Get Low. Based on a true story that grew into something of a folk tale, molded into a screen story by Chris Provenzano and Scott Seeke, scripted by Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, and realized by Aaron Schneider, the film ultimately betrays what was fun about its premise. The first act is filled with the promise that everyone has a story to tell about Felix Bush, yet when the funeral party finally happens and the whole town turns out not a single speaker shares the mic with Bush and Quinn. They just huddle some distance from the outdoor stage and rhubarb discreetly. The open stage turns into a one-man show, banking everything on the big reveal that by this point has pretty much already been revealed in piecemeal though a number of twists as predictable and ornamental as the story’s basic premise is intriguing. The sense of Get Low’s straying from its own path is further solidified by Schneider’s overly solemn and ominous direction, which, from the fiery opening flashback onward, too often anticipates what’s to come, and by Jan Kaczmarek’s over-used score.
There are nonetheless pleasures to be had in Get Low, which seems at heart to want to be a humanist comedy. The slight modulations in Duvall’s expressions alone are worth the effort, and his one extended sequence with Spacek has a rhythm and a certain grace to it that would be difficult to locate in a film that would not allow for such unhurried gentleness between veteran actors. In this respect Schneider should be applauded. Duvall, now 79, seems like one of these actors who could just keep going forever. It’s been over a dozen years since he made The Apostle, a major career highlight, and I wish he would direct again. In the meantime, I’m happy to see him find young directors who know how to stand back and let him do his thing. And I’m happy to see a director smart enough to let Spacek do just about anything.