Appellate Judge Tom Becker once tried to talk to a cow, but he just couldn't get low.
A true tall tale.
How strange that in just over a six-month period I should review two films about people who both plan and attend their own wakes. The first film that I saw, The Living Wake, was a horrendous vanity project. The second one, Get Low, was the direct opposite, a quirky and moving little film that's not quite a mini-masterpiece, but has quite a lot to recommend it.
Facts of the Case
For the past 40 years, Felix Bush (Robert Duvall, Apocalypse Now) has been living a hermit-like existence on the outskirts of town. He's become the stuff of legend—bad legend, a frightening eccentric whose secluded home is the target for little boys out to prove themselves by throwing rocks through the dangerous man's windows.
When he gets word that an old friend has died, Bush realizes his own time to Get Low might be coming, so he decides to throw himself a wake. He wants everyone who's got a story about him to come and tell it. Frank Quinn (Bill Murray, Lost in Translation), the funeral director, isn't sure how many people will take up Bush's offer—the guy's rumored to kill people who offend him; but Quinn, whose funeral business is failing, encourages Bush with his increasingly elaborate send-off.
Quinn's young assistant, Buddy (Lucas Black, Sling Blade), isn't so sure about all this; he feels there's something wrong about turning what should be solemn occasion into a circus, and he thinks Bush has some ulterior motive.
Get Low is billed as "A True Tall Tale," and it is, in fact, based on a real-life incident. In rural Tennessee in 1938, a hermit named Felix "Bush" Breazeale decided to throw himself a funeral while he was still alive. Thousands of people attended, testimonials to the eccentric man were given, and Felix became something of a celebrity. He also lived another five years.
Director Aaron Schneider and writers Chris Provenzano, C. Gaby Mitchell, and Scott Seeke keep this basic premise, setting the film in a rural 1930s town. It's a well-blended comedy/drama, with a mystery element. While the real Felix apparently just didn't want to miss his big send-off, the movie Felix actually has a pretty dark secret, foreshadowed by a pre-credit scene of a man running away from a burning building.
The "mystery angle" is intriguing, and it's nicely developed without being intrusive. We barely think about Felix's motivations for the first half of the film, and by the time Schneider lets us know that there's more here than just the story of a big party, we've invested so much in these characters that we care about the outcome because we care about them. The story also takes us a few places that we weren't expecting to go; for instance, a romantic subplot that seemed pre-ordained gets turned on its head. It's a nice trick, and even if Get Low, in the end, can't quite sustain its own plot machinations, it's never less than a satisfying experience.
Much of this satisfaction comes from the first-rate cast. Get Low gives us three great actors whose distinctive styles meld beautifully, as well as a strong performance from a younger actor that helps keep the film grounded.
Robert Duvall invests Felix Bush with the same kind of ferocious intensity he's brought to so many other characters over his long career; this is such a graceful, vital performance, it's impossible to believe that the actor was near 80 when he gave it. Duvall has transcended the status of "great actor" and is now firmly in national treasure territory. There's not a false note to be found in his work here, and there's just something thrilling about watching Duvall go through his paces, hitting the comedy as effortlessly as the drama.
Bill Murray seems to have cornered the market of world-weary cynicism, and much of this is Murray doing Murray, which is never a bad thing. But there's a lot of depth to this characterization, a faint but distinct aura of sadness that hallmarks the actor's best work and makes the character something more than an arch opportunist. Typically, his timing and delivery are spot-on, and as Quinn basks in the increasingly extravagant—and profitable—funeral arrangements, Murray is responsible for some of the film's funniest moments.
As a woman from Felix's past, and a linchpin to the hermit's secret, Sissy Spacek turns what could be a one-note "device" character into a fully formed human being. Spacek handles her character's rather complex emotional arc with the kind of grace and nuance we've come to expect from the actress.
Lucas Black has the least showy role as the young man trying to do the right thing by everyone. Black holds his own with his award-winning co-stars, his earnest good guy offering a solid foundation for the film; it helps that the actor has a fine sense of timing and an expressive face.
Schneider directs with tremendous sensitivity and a keen respect to the characters. For the most part, this is a film of small, beautifully portrayed moments, and Schneider wisely lets things unfold in a natural, sometimes delicate way. There's a lovely scene in which some of the characters are socializing, gathered in someone's home, perhaps for a card game. They talk about Felix, and their conversation is so simple and authentic, it sounds nothing like actors reciting dialogue. Near the end of the scene, it's suggested that one of these characters might have feelings for another, but this information is offered not as a dramatic revelation, but so gently and subtly, it's haunting.
Sony's DVD is a very nice affair. The picture and audio are solid, as should be expected from a recent release. We get a full slate of extras, including a commentary (subtitled in English, Spanish, and Portuguese) with Schneider, Duvall, Spacek, and Dean Zanuck, who produced the film; a trio of "behind the scenes" featurettes ("The Deep South: Buried Secrets," "Getting Low: Getting Into Character," and "A Screenwriter's Point of View") with input from cast and crew members; a Q&A from the Tribeca Film Festival, with Murray, Spacek, Duvall, Schneider, and Zanuck; and footage from a premiere in Hollywood.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is a case of the journey being better than the arrival at the destination. The slow unfolding of Felix's secret is fine, but once the whole thing is revealed, it just drags the film down. The whole thing is explained at the end of the film in a long speech—eulogy, actually—that even the great Duvall has trouble putting over elegantly. It's a shame, since the actors are so compelling and the whole film so charming, that the denouement comes across as forced and just a bit "much."
Funny, charming, and featuring some of the best acting you'll see this year, Get Low is sweet surprise. Sony does right by this little gem, offering a good-looking disc with worthwhile supplements. Highly recommended.
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