"This isn't the old Mister Sunshine. I'm not happy. I can't make myself happy. I couldn't make you happy."—Larry Darrell (Bill Murray)
Larry Darrell (Bill Murray), a young rake from Illinois, leaves small town life and an adoring girlfriend (Catherine Hicks) to go off to World War I as an ambulance driver. Traumatized by the death of his commander (Brian Doyle-Murray), he heads off on a spiritual journey, first to Paris, then India and Tibet. Meanwhile, former girlfriend Isabel marries the dull Gray Maturin (James Keach), the Depression hits, and their friend Sophie (Theresa Russell) winds up an alcoholic prostitute.
And Bill Murray is not as bad as you might think in his first expressly dramatic role.
That is the good news. As a star vehicle for the rising Murray (Ghostbusters came out the same year), The Razor's Edge offers a surprisingly restrained performance from the comedian, much less self-conscious than, say, Robin Williams would have offered around that period. He keeps largely silent in the first half where the "funny" Murray might mug for the camera and offer insincere quips. But sometimes he over-restrains himself, coming across as a bit stiff, particularly when Larry should display some temper. Oddly, Murray would not warm up as an actor until Ghostbusters II (the first film where his comic turns drop their smug edge), but for now, he seems to reach his natural limit with scenes of emotional intensity. In the last act, Murray loosens up and shows some nice chemistry with his newfound love Sophie, but for much of the film's first half, there is a noticeable flatness to Larry that makes it hard to really understand exactly what he might be running from that leads him so far away from his old life.
Now the bad news. The Razor's Edge is one of the later and more problematic novels by William Somerset Maugham, a complex narrative in which "Mr. Maugham" relates the various adventures of a group of wanderers (members of the "Lost Generation") in their quest for spiritual satisfaction. While Larry Darrell in the 1943 novel eschews materialism and physical pleasure, steering toward a working class version of spiritual purity, Elliot Templeton (played in the film by Denholm Elliott) and his crowd seek fulfillment through hedonism and social climbing. Of course, Maugham was a cynic and conservative at heart, and by the time the characters intersect in the final act, they must all suffer from the tragedies that life throws their way.
You will only find hints of that in the script to this second film version (the first, made in 1947 and starring Tyrone Power, was successful enough to let Maugham enjoy his own materialistic urges). Focusing more on the romantic triangle of Larry, Isabel, and Sophie, the script by director John Byrum and Bill Murray tends to relegate Larry's spiritual quest to a plot distraction, a way to keep him offstage for a bit while the other characters get into their places for the eventual reconnection in Paris. Much of the film's first half consists of stock scenes: Larry walks home with Isabel along a tree-lined, moonlit sidewalk; the "brutality of war" sequence follows. Never mind that in the novel, Larry was a pilot; here he is an ambulance driver, so he does not have to kill anybody (thus risking the audience's sympathy). In fact, Larry is such a nice guy before the war and during his wanderings, that the post-India Larry is pretty much the same as the pre-India Larry. What did he learn? The film very conspicuously avoids offering any spiritual insight for risk of offending anyone. And Larry's love affair with Sophie (again, in contrast to the novel's Larry, who avoids physical pleasure), which includes the usual "boat ride scene" and "cuddling in the park" scene that every movie romance must have, seems to suggest that Larry has undergone little change whatsoever.
All this seems a little odd from director John Byrum, whose previous film Heart Beat tracked the relationship between Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. Does Byrum really understand how much The Razor's Edge influenced the Beats and their quest for enlightenment, even serving as a model for Kerouac's The Dharma Bums? If so, he seems at great pains to remove any suggestions of spirituality from this film. In turn, he slows down the pace, hoping we will find the film's solemnity on a par with a David Lean epic. But David Lean epics deal with the struggles of individuals, their aspirations and desires, set against the backdrop of great events. The aspirations and desires of Larry remain cryptic, Elliot Templeton (very prominent in the novel) remains mostly offstage, and Isabel and Gray are dull as dirt. Only Sophie seems to give off any sparks: traumatized by the death of her husband and child, she fights against the bourgeois conformity of her friends, ending up used and discarded in accord with her own self-destructive desires. And Theresa Russell gets all the best emotional scenes in the film too.
Good, bad, and now ugly: The Razor's Edge does not fare well under the hand of Columbia's DVD department. The print bears noticeable grain and fading in spots. In spite of an anamorphic transfer, the film also seems slightly blurry at times. Yes, an awful lot of scenes are shot in what appears to be an omnipresent haze—smoky bars, morning mist, snowy mountains—but the image itself often feels dull when Byrum should be showing off the fancy locations. The sound mix is not much better. Sound levels drop in and out and often go quite flat, making the dialogue feel canned. On top of this, the disc offers no substantive extras other than a trailer.
The Razor's Edge wants to be an epic, but it stubbornly resists making any grand gestures, so it cannot really succeed or fail. The result is a decidedly mediocre effort. It is not particularly good or particularly bad; it just seems like a decent way to pass a couple of hours if you have nothing better to do. In much the same way, Bill Murray makes a solid effort at a difficult role, but he never seems to push himself too hard, as if afraid to really reach into the character of Larry Darrell. Rather than an end to itself, the film is really more of a stepping-stone for Murray to find himself as an actor. Maybe he was not quite ready to really stretch himself too far, but given his fine and balanced work in later films (especially for Wes Anderson), the risks he is willing to take in The Razor's Edge did eventually pay off.
Bill Murray is released for making a noble effort. Columbia, in turn, is fined for not making enough of an effort to restore this film. Court is adjourned.
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