The Razor’s Edge

May 31, 2011

It didn’t work. For months now we’ve been hearing about how Bill Murray would essay his first dramatic role—not only that, he would do it in an adaptation of Somerset Maugahm’s The Razor’s Edge. That’s biting off a lot, and chances were the film would either be a disaster or a weird, original triumph.

The movie is here. It didn’t work.

The novel tells the story of a young American veteran of World War I who, disturbed by what he had seen in the trenches, turns his back on sophisticated society (including his fiancée) and searches for meaning. Eventually he finds spiritual guidance in India, and dedicates his life to selflessness.

Films about the search for internal truth don’t get made too often, but The Razor’s Edge was filmed once before. Tyrone Power had enough clout to mount a version in 1946, with himself as the searcher Larry Darrell, Gene Tierney as his fiancée, Anne Baxter as their self-destructive friend (she copped a supporting actress Oscar), and Clifton Webb as a social butterfly.

Bill Murray, who loved the book, also had to use his clout to get the movie made: He agreed to do Ghostbusters for Columbia Pictures if they would finance The Razor’s Edge. If you’ve been following the box-office reports on Ghostbusters, you know that Columbia isn’t going to lose any money on this deal, even if Razor’s Edge does a nosedive.

The Tyrone Power version was a faithful, if somewhat ponderous, adaptation. Murray and director John Byrum have leavened their script with Murrayesque humor, even when that humor is anachronistic or just plain misplaced.

Murray’s comic force, very much a part of our time, seems jarring when set at the beginning of the century. We can appreciate that his Larry Darrell might be a bit of a clown, but when Murray flops over the side of a swimming pool and does a seal imitation while his fiancée wants to talk about the collapse of their relationship, something isn’t ringing true. Don’t misunderstand me—Murray playing a seal is very funny. It’s just in the wrong movie.

This problem happens repeatedly; obviously, Byrum and Murray thought the mix of comedy and drama would work. No go.

They’ve also got a problem with the sheer size of the story. It’s long already, and they add a new (and rather good) sequence set at the front lines during the war. They rush through things too much—our hero gets to the Himalayas, and boom! He’s got his transcendental experience. We barely get to know the other characters.

There are problems in that department, too: most glaringly, Catherine Hicks as the fiancée who gets fed up and marries a solid, steady businessman (James Keach). Hicks gives an insufferable performance, and doesn’t come close to suggesting the ambiguities of her character. Denholm Elliott, as her society uncle, plays it with arched eyebrows, and not much more.

Brian Doyle-Murray (Bill’s brother) registers strongly as a wartime friend of Murray’s, and Saeed Jaffrey does nice work as an Indian boatsman who guides Murray to a temple high in the mountains. The acting jewel here is the performance of Theresa Russell, as the widowed friend who turns to drink and prostitution in the streets of Paris. Russell, made up to look like silent film star Louise Brooks, explores depths of character that are sometimes painful to watch.

Individual scenes are effective, and Murray has a few good moments, when he’s able to calm down. But the center doesn’t hold, and Byrum, who has made stylish films (such as Heart Beat) in the past, can’t keep it together. If, as the saying has it, the path to salvation is akin to walking a razor’s edge, this movie falls down and cuts itself wide open. There’s no one else to blame—the wound is self-inflicted.

First published in the Herald, October 29, 1984

The 1980s had some weird projects, but this is in a zone of its own. I really admire Murray for making the out-and-out trade with Columbia, and for wanting to shoot a movie of a very special book; I remember really wanting this crazy enterprise to work (did anybody think to set the story in the post-Vietnam era, which would have mitigated the problem of his anachronistic playing?). There was something fascinating about the fact that Murray took some kind of hiatus (four years or so) from movies and went off to live in Paris or something, as though the movie hadn’t entirely stopped for him.