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  BELIEVE THE HYPE? BILL MURRAY IN THE LIFE AQUATIC.  
   
   
 

When exactly did we decide that Bill Murray was the coolest guy ever?

Although one of the few Saturday Night Live alums to maintain an actual career after leaving the show, Murray stands peculiarly in the Hollywood community. Now mostly a seriocomic actor in quirky, independent productions, he commands legions of hipsters and

 
 

magazine editors who sing his praises and insist that he's a genius thespian.

How did this happen? And how soon can we stop this foolishness?

These thoughts bubbled around in my head while watching Murray sad-eye his way through The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Wes Anderson's latest adventure in sumptuous production design and minimal character development. Anderson has now used Murray in three straight films and has been chiefly responsible for the

     
 

comedian's rebirth as a Real Actor. It was Rushmore where critics started taking note of Murray's crying-on-the-inside-kinda-clown persona. Not quite a fully realized performance, Murray's Vietnam vet collected moments of poignancy and bitterness, tying it together with a soulless vacancy that evoked … well, what, exactly? Perhaps no actor goes so far on diffidence -- the characters of his Real Actor period always seem broken, spent, stunned, hushed, too far gone to give a damn.

At least that's what his fans would have you believe. While I've loved him since the SNL days for his stubborn refusal to be a shameless hack -- even his bad movies have a little going on upstairs -- I don't quite buy this new reincarnation of the man. The Life Aquatic pinpoints all the reasons why, although I doubt the converted will even notice.

Back when he just wanted to be a lowly comic star, Bill Murray's charismatic energy turned crap like Stripes into tolerable entertainment and blockbusters like Ghostbusters into classics. John Belushi earned his reputation for rambunctious buffoonery, but Murray always projected a deeper, more interesting charm. You didn't quite know for sure what he might do -- like Steve Martin, he seemed perpetually to be up to something. Even in the early '90s with the greatly underrated Quick Change, Murray proved he could play normal human beings and wring laughs from the mundane.

But as with Rushmore and Michael Almereyda's Hamlet and, yes, yes, oh very yes, Lost in Translation, The Life Aquatic simply props Murray up as a paragon of fashionable melancholy, milking the audience's puppy love for this graying funnyman. I'm glad Murray hasn't been reduced to the dumpster of Comedy Central weekend-afternoon-old-movie reruns -- and I'm also glad he hasn't embarrassed himself by going Robin Williams on us -- but I'd like to see him do a little more with his newfound cache. In the new film, Wes Anderson has put him alongside Willem Dafoe and Cate Blanchett and Anjelica Huston, and the best he can do is riff on his weird-older-dude routine. Murray supplies his usual poise, but you can't help but feel that he's skating a little too easily through this material, as he has for years.

Conceited and defeated, Steve Zissou is a past-his-prime deep-sea filmmaker and oceanographer burdened by bad relationships, career deterioration and buried regrets. Put another way, he's Murray 101. And just like most late-period Murray roles, Zissou uses his roustabout sarcasm to buffer his pain, while allowing us to realize that deep down the character just needs to open up in order to be happy. There's a dilapidated "Iron John" nonsense to many of Murray's recent assignments; his movies sympathetically follow him as he struggles with his thwarted manhood until he either cries, hugs or gracefully walks off into the distance, forever emotionally crippled. (Comic actors get away with this baloney all the time: Audiences have a pathological need to believe that funny people aren't always laughing, that they're actually bravely hiding their fears inside their humorous body. I guess it's comforting to all the tragically unfunny people out there in the world.)

As such, The Life Aquatic is a virtual treasure trove of Murrayisms, lazy tricks disguised as some sort of Zen acting simplicity. Invariably, his characters are falling apart -- their eyes flashing with a mixture of anger and panic and sadness -- and no matter how he tries to make the best of it, things just get worse. This punching-bag routine makes him a good sport, I suppose, but some folks read a certain brilliance into this martyrdom. (Perhaps they flatter themselves by taking on Murray's dejected calm as their own smug, above-it-all reaction to a world that keeps confounding them.) But Murray's demeanor rarely fluctuates from film to film -- and it rarely modulates within the same film. Even in his Oscar-nominated turn in Lost in Translation, Murray just repeated his beaten-down glumness from earlier roles, never quite building to anything. He started sad, he ended sad; the only dramatic transformation on display was performed by the audience, who slowly realized that here was a Bill Murray movie without many laughs at all. While there is something to admire in Murray's desire to play wounded grownups, once the surprise of him in more dramatic roles wears off, I'm not quite sure what he brings to these films. Only in Groundhog Day, a conventional but effective high-concept flick, did he start off as a disgruntled cynic and then change into a compassionate human being. In his indie work, his directors seem too smitten by Bill Murray the ironic icon to do much with him. It's as if they were so happy to have him, they didn't quite feel the need to push him at all. He exudes resigned cool -- and let's not worry over the specifics, OK?

In this way, he and Wes Anderson are well suited for one another. Both of them rely on an insular detachment as a glib response to the throb of real life. Do they bring it out of each other? Before Murray and Rushmore, Anderson made Bottle Rocket, a modest, intensely likable little movie. Since then, Anderson has dreamed of becoming an auteur, enhancing his visual palette to create some of the most distinctive universes in recent cinema -- the prep school of Rushmore, the lily-white Manhattan of The Royal Tenenbaums, the seafaring world of The Life Aquatic. But though a stickler for detail in terms of song choices, wardrobe and camera placement, Anderson has drifted further and further away from the particulars of reality in his writing. Following Murray's example, Anderson's movies are starting to display an alarming sameness -- safe and reassuringly hip with flawless clarity. But as with their adoring treatment of Murray, critics never question this repetitiveness -- apparently, they can't get enough of Anderson's clever "attitude" and self-preserving irony.

Really, Bill Murray's blankness seems to have affected everyone. Who better represents our era's trendy posturing of not giving a damn? Projecting a rumpled dignity, he represents for all the unhappy men out there in the world, downsized, cuckolded, balding. His droopy mug suggests everything and nothing at the same time without much effort. Many people cut off from their own emotions find that noble and cool. For the rest of us who actually want to feel something -- from actors, from movies, from life -- we've grown out of being trendy a long time ago.

 

Believe the Hype rating: 4 out of 10.
(10 being completely worth it, 1 being full of hot air)

 

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Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon.