Monday, August 30, 2010

Life at a Funeral: GET LOW

Get Low is the latest example of how competent direction of a middling script can be elevated, even saved, by a host of great actors. The direction from Aaron Schneider, in his feature debut, is flat and flavorless. The script from Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell is full of phony cornpone sentiment that aims only at those with the most easily softened emotions. All involved in the creation of the film should be thankful that they attracted actors who can cut through the falseness to convey some emotion truth that would otherwise be nonexistent.

At the center of this modest little depression-era tale is the great Robert Duvall as a man who has lived like a hermit for 40 years. Naturally, he has also been cultivating an aura of mystery and danger among the gossiping people of the nearby town. He’s getting old and feels the weight of time and age pressing down. He heads in to town and asks the local funeral home to throw him a funeral party while he’s still alive so he can invite “everyone who has a story to tell” about him.

The owner of the funeral home is, of course, a welcome Bill Murray. He calmly sizes up the odd request and offers to get it done. Murray, and his young associate Lucas Black, set about setting up the party and grappling with the old man’s eccentricities and inconsistencies. There’s small humor to be found in the ways these three men try to get the invitations out by radio and by posters. Duvall brings to the role distant warmth that balances Murray’s sly, shifty subtlety and Black’s fresh-faced good-intentions.

The plot is wrapped around a profoundly uninteresting, though not entirely uninvolving, mystery about the true intentions behind Duvall’s self-imposed exile that is haltingly teased and ultimately revealed, but by then I cared even less. Early on, Duvall stares at a faded photograph of a young woman in a shot that fades into a close-up of a flickering flame, annoyingly telegraphing part of his past. She’s his old flame (get it?) that he has carried a torch for (get it?). Do you think the secrets in this old man’s past have anything to do with all of this flame imagery? If you do, don’t worry. Schneider won’t give you a chance to miss a thing, even if you try.

The hermit’s past is not as interesting as the film seems to think it is, but at least it gives a reason for Sissy Spacek and Bill Cobbs to enter the picture and remind us why they’re so good. Spacek has a nicely restrained emotion to her behavior while Cobbs towers over his scenes with a well-earned sense of command and a welcome melodious voice. Their performances are wonderful to watch. They even overcome the contortions the script puts them through to avoid revealing things prematurely.

Glancing back over what I’ve written, it sounds like I disliked the movie more than I actually did. At the time, I found it passably enjoyable. Only afterwards has my head been full of small complaints. This is a perfectly fine little film that’s quick and unchallenging. It’s a chance to see great actors working, using their craft in ways that go above and beyond that which this particular film calls for. It’s a nice 100 minutes with an amiable company of top-notch actors. It’s a pleasant enough diversion, enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s certainly nothing more than that.

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