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.

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The Whoopee Boys

January 20, 2011

Oh, the legacy of Animal House. Ever since the megabuck success of the landmark gross-out comedy, the stream of crude and rude films that rely on leering goofballs and subterranean body noises has continued unabated.

Sensitive observers of film are quite correct to lament this sorry state. It is a valid complaint. But, you know, raunchiness and ribaldry have their place, too. Come to think of it, Animal House was a pretty funny movie.

Now comes The Whoopee Boys, a film that deliberately seeks the crudest level of comedy. We can decry this film for its lack of erudition. But, speaking on an uninsistently personal level, I can’t deny that this movie has a few shamelessly funny sequences.

Before that is interpreted as an out-and-out recommendation, I would hasten to add that the funny moments in The Whoopee Boys are outweighed by the just plain gross. Lots of stuff doesn’t work in this scattershot affair.

The material that does pay off is an affront to common decency, which frankly can afford to be affronted now and then. This isn’t going to elevate our sensibilities or bring us closer to international understanding, but it can provide some low-level gratification.

It comes as no surprise that the screenplay is mainly the work of Steve Zacharias and Jeff Buhai, who wrote Revenge of the Nerds, another reasonably funny slob comedy. (They collaborated here with David Obst.)

They’ve invented a pair of freewheeling goombahs (Michael O’Keefe and Paul Rodriguez) and turned them loose on polite society in Florida. There’s a plot in here somewhere, an absurd thing about a nice heiress who needs to marry before she can inherit a fortune. She doesn’t want to marry the rich creeps around her, so O’Keefe offers his services.

But he’s much too outrageous to mingle in Palm Beach society, so he and Rodriguez go to a mad school of etiquette. This is mined for a few formulaic laughs, then they return to take Palm Beach by storm.

I would like to share some of the comedy of the film, but propriety dictates against it. It’s safe to say that it would appeal to a narrow, and decidedly lowbrow, sense of humor.

John Byrum directed; it’s another blip in a very odd career. He’s gone from an almost-unseen X-rated Richard Dreyfuss movie (Inserts) to a sympathetic homage to Jack Kerouac (Heart Beat) to the gruesome meeting of Somerset Maugham and Bill Murray (The Razor’s Edge).

Byrum encourages an appropriately loosey-goosey atmosphere, and O’Keefe and especially Rodriguez exploit the improvisatory situation. Like them or loathe them, these guys can really clear a room.

First published in the Herald, September 24, 1986

Who recalls The Whoopee Boys? It’s true there’s a poster for the film in the background of a set in Hot Rod, which is a much funnier picture. This is a weird review, and I don’t even bother to cite the handful of low-humor scenes that apparently made me laugh. Byrum must be sort of an interesting character; at any rate, I genuinely liked Heart Beat, and perhaps someday I will actually watch the Murray version of The Razor’s Edge again, just to see anew one of the strangest Hollywood projects ever.