Thursday, August 5, 2010
More than 70-years ago, a Tennessee man made national news for staging his own funeral... and attending it. KPBS film critic Beth Accomando says American acting legend Robert Duvall has a field day playing the role in "Get Low."
Back in 1938, Roane County Tennessee got national attention for a resident who decided to throw himself a funeral while he was still alive. “Get Low” (opening August 6 at Landmark's La Jolla Village Theaters) looks to this southern tall tale as a showcase for actor Robert Duvall.
Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) is something of a local legend in his Tennessee backwoods country. He's a cranky recluse who's been living alone for some four decades. He's easy to rile and kids dare each other to trespass on his property. And on the rare occasion he comes to town, he gets taunted by the locals. So when Felix decides to throw himself a funeral and make a live appearance, it makes the news.
RADIO DJ: "Sir, how did you come up with the idea of throwing a funeral party for yourself before you die?"
FELIX: "I dreamed it."
RADIO DJ: "Really? You're a bit of a local legend. I was a bit nervous about our interview. I've heard some pretty wild stories."
And it's those wild stories that are likely to keep people away. So Felix adds a little incentive to attract attendees.
FELIX: "There's gonna be a drawing. You buy a ticket for five dollars and the day of the funeral we draw names and when I die, the winner gets my place."
That certainly stirs interest but Felix doesn't just want a big crowd. The septuagenarian also wants people to come and tell stories about him. His need for a living eulogy stems from the fact that he needs to unburden himself of some dark secrets. To help with the event, Felix turns to local funeral parlor director, Frank (Bill Murray). Although Felix hasn't spoken to anyone in forty years, he's still proves a sharp negotiator.
FELIX: "You put this money in a box and the boy and I will take it someplace in the morning. Listen to me you, whatever new comes in you put it in the bottom of one of them ugly caskets you got in there till I come get it. When the party's over, you name a fair price for what you've done and we'll settle up."
Sony Pictures Classics
FRANK: "Is it just me or is he extremely articulate when he wants to be?"
BUDDY: "I don't know who's selling what to who any more."
"Get Low" is designed as a showcase for actor Robert Duvall and he's smart enough to use the role to its full advantage. He struts around like he owns the place, acting crotchety and dispensing southern wisdom.
FELIX: "There's a whole lot of things you don't know, like what a dog dreams, you can make up that he dreams about chasing rabbits but you don't know if there are rabbits in there or not and he can't tell you, can he?"
His performance rings true and Duvall's a delight to watch. Yet the film has all the honey drenched sentimentality of a Hallmark TV special. It also plays out with by-the-numbers predictability. Everything revolves around Duvall's Felix. He's made as cantankerous as can be at first but we know it can't last. In the end he will be made human and endearing. But rather than develop Felix in depth, the film takes a shortcut. It simply has all the other characters talk about how fascinating Felix is, like Matty (Sissy Spacek), a woman who reveals an affection for the old hermit.
MATTY: "A thousand years ago he was the most interesting man I'd ever met... Most people are laid out nice and simple, you always know what they're thinking but he was like this big old cave that kept going deeper and deeper."
Sony Pictures Classics
The problem is people tell us Felix is a fascinating character but what we see is more like a stereotyped curmudgeon raised to a higher level by Duvall's acting. The film is certainly at its best when Duvall shares the screen with Sissy Spacek, who plays Matty, or Bill Murray, who plays the cagey funeral man. Murray provides a nice counterpoint to Duvall. While Duvall serves up a plain speaking man, Murray gives us a displaced northerner trying to make a go at the funeral business in the south where things move a tad too slowly.
FRANK: "What do you do when people won't die? One thing about Chicago, people know how to die. They drown, get run over, shot, whatever it takes."
BUDDY: "We get it done around here too, we're just not in a hurry about it."
"Get Low's" in no hurry either. First time director Aaron Schneider takes it easy. He gives everything a warm glow to maximize the folksy charm and gentle humor. Even though we have to revisit the past to uncover Felix' mystery, the film plays out in a very straightforward linear manner. There's nothing fancy about Schneider's direction. The downside is it makes the film play flat. The plus side is nothing gets in the way of watching Duvall and his fellow actors have a grand time with this lazy southern tale.
"Get Low" is rated PG-13 for some thematic material and brief violent content.
Companion viewing: "The Apostle," "Tender Mercies," "Waking Ned Devine"