No Easy Gait

'Broken Flowers' & 'March of the Penguins'

Bill Murray was the first movie comedian since W. C. Fields to make cold contempt hip and attractive. For both performers the world was enemy. Fields squinted at it suspiciously but Murray’s gaze never concealed its open contempt. The Murray stare said, “Yes, if you feel you have just made an utter and eternal ass of yourself, trust that intuition completely.”

Fields folded in on himself like a cardsharp checking the aces up his sleeve, but Murray was generous with his venom and displayed surprising degrees of vocal color and gestural inventiveness while sharing it. Lashing out at his charitable assistant in Scrooged, Murray designated her his “ex-x-x-x-sssecretary!” the sibilance of his rage spraying the air. And the way he washed his face in Groundhog Day—three robotic splashes to the face—suggested that Phil the supercilious weatherman found even morning ablutions a waste of his precious time.

But the last few years and films have witnessed a change in Murray. The sarcasm hasn’t vanished but it’s imploded. He seems bemused by the jackass within. The wiseacre motormouth has turned into an unusually quiet man keeping his hands at his sides, the shoulders sloping a bit back in trepidation, the now scanty hair no longer coifed, the lips compressed, the eyes containing tiny glints of surprise, skepticism, gentle mockery, hints of self-disgust, and, yes, even...

To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.

About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.