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One Sunday afternoon, a friend of yours gives you a call and tells you that they are throwing a party. All of your friends are coming and they promise it will be a great time. As the week goes on, your anticipation grows, knowing that your friends always know how to put on a good time. You call them up and they begin to toss out ideas about what the group should do, and you couldn’t be more keyed up. Finally the night of the party arrives and you show up to your friend’s door ready for a great night. Then you step inside to find two of your friends sitting on the couch daydreaming, another listening to their iPod with their headphones in and yet another playing solitaire on the kitchen table. That is the experience of Aaron Schnieder’s Get Low.
Though the film sports an excellent cast, all of whom put on fantastic shows in their individual roles, the entire plot revolves around and builds towards the movie’s climax. By the time it arrives it is nothing like what it was set up to be, and you can’t help but feel cheated.
Based on an old Southern folk tale, Get Low stars Robert Duvall as Felix Bush, a hermit who has been living in the backwoods of Tennessee for 40 years. After a night in which he realizes his own mortality, he strolls into town with a wad of cash and a strange request: he wants to plan his funeral, but he wants to have it while he’s still alive. Catching wind of this strange request is Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), the owner of a failing funeral parlor with the morals of a used car dealer, who becomes hypnotized by the recluse’s money roll and is willing to comply with every request to get his hands on it. Balancing out Quinn is his young assistant Buddy (Lucas Black), who has qualms about making light of death for profit. The event quickly grows larger-- Felix first wants everyone who has heard a story about him to come share it, and then he hosts a lottery in which the winner will inherit his 300 acre estate after his passing. Soon the living funeral becomes an opportunity for Felix to share the reason why he has imprisoned himself in a cage of his own construction.
Back in 1962, Duvall made his feature film debut in To Kill A Mockingbird, playing the reclusive Boo Radley, and with his performance in Get Low he has brought his career full circle. Laboring with every breath as though he has just completed a marathon and manipulating everyone to ensure that everything goes his way, it is the actor’s performance that provides the film’s momentum. Felix knows exactly what he wants; it’s just a matter of pushing others into the right spots to make it happen. The role is tonally all over the map, but not in a bad way, and Duvall adeptly mixes it all together so that we understand the same man who messes up his shaggy looks to look crazier is the same that one who is able to give a heartfelt speech.
While the film isn’t being sold as a comedy, largely because its not, it is at its best when it’s making the audience laugh. Naturally and expectedly, this is where Bill Murray steps in and excels. At first it seems as though he is playing a fairly stock character: the greedy salesman who would sell you his grandmother’s wheelchair. But as the film progresses and we watch his relationship with both the hermit and his young partner, the script succeeds in creating an arc for his character as the living funeral goes from being a profit driven exercise to a mission. Murray has always had the chops to mix drama and comedy and they once again present themselves here.
But as enjoyable the characters may be, the film simply hits a roadblock in its final quarter. From start to finish, every key plot point in the film suggests what will be seen at Felix Bush’s party. It begins with him looking for a priest to speak on his behalf. Then he wants to hear all of the various rumors and stories that have been spread over the previous four decades. This is followed by Felix’s lottery idea and then finally the revelation as to why he receded from society. Of those four ideas, one is completely omitted without mention, one is muted, and the other two are truncated to such a level that it leaves the audience wondering why they should have cared about the preceding hour and twenty minutes. The filmmakers had an incredible opportunity to take this movie based on a folk tale to an great height, but from the results it looks as though they just got lazy.
Get Low is a perfect film version of wasted potential. It had all of the makings of a hit: an above-average cast, an Oscar winning short director taking the leap into features, a soundtrack reminiscent of O Brother Where Art Thou? and a script full of well-rounded, likeable characters. Had the film managed to maintain its pace and actually give the audience what it was looking for, it could have been monumentally successful. Unfortunately, it didn’t.
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