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Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge
(1984)

(SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

Still, Peter Venkman fans ought to be forever grateful for its existence. That’s not quite true, as Murray might well have made Ghostbusters anyway, but since he and and director John Byrum had co-penned The Razor’s Edge screenplay with some Columbia development money (but no deal to make it) and Dan Aykroyd had Ghostbusters raring to go, which every studio wanted, Murray suggested he “Tell ’em they can have Ghostbusters if they do The Razor’s Edge”. Ghostbusters proceeded to go through the roof, grossing nearly $300m worldwide on a $30m budget. The Razor’s Edge inconspicuously bombed, taking $6m on a $12m budget. Columbia could afford not to give a crap.

Why did Murray want to do it? Aside from the cliché of the comedian trying to show everyone that, deep down, he’s a deep and serious and thoughtful person? Byrum was his pal, for starters (“I liked the way he talked about Hollywood. He says terrible things about Hollywood and everything in it”). And while it’s true that Murray rarely strays from his deadpan shtick, even in ostensibly straight roles, he had played Hunter S Thompson in Where the Buffalo Roam a few years earlier. So if he hadn’t enormously stretched himself previously, he was evidently open to it.

To latch onto a picture like The Razor’s Edge so emphatically suggests he related deeply to its spiritual component, though. He has stated he’s religious but no longer Catholically so, and that he likes his Gurdjieff; “He’s interested in spiritual disciplines, and they seem to have had a salutary effect on him” wrote Timothy Crouse in a 1984 Rolling Stone interview, prior to the picture’s release. Murray commented “The story I got was of a guy who sees that there’s more to life than just making a buck and having a romantic fling. I’d experienced that, and I knew what that was, so I had my own ideas about how it played”. But you read the full interview, and that’s about as much substance as Murray has to give, apart from a vaguely stoned realisation that there’s more to it than this.

Which is about what you get from the adaptation, the stoned bit aside. Todd McCarthy, in his contemporary review of the picture (The Film Yearbook Volume 4), complained that Murray and Byrum massacred the balance of Maugham’s material, whereby Elliot Templeton (Denholm Elliot), the snobby, over-refined bachelor (an uncle of Isabel, played by Catherine Hicks) “seeks the meaning of life in how a table is set or how one dresses for a ball – in other words, through style and social standing. Templeton’s concerns may seem superficial, but to him they are just as meaningful as Darrell’s insights are to the latter. One man may choose the spiritual, another the temporal, but, in Maugham’s view, it all comes down to about the same thing in the end”.

If that is how Maugham saw it, it’s undoubtedly the case that the adaptation fails to express it. Nevertheless, as limited as Elliot’s presence is, he is one of the highlights, be it berating a hotdog as he tentatively consumes it via a white-gloved hand or characterising any enraged throwing of crockery or furniture as unfortunately clumsy mishaps when the servants duly appear. And, upon seeing Murry’s Larry Darrell again, returned from India, he suggests a very peripheral, “Look, why don’t you, er, take a wash and drop by some time”.

Most of everything else is curiously flat, though, from Byrum’s direction – despite the many lovely vistas cinematographer Peter Hannan, of Withnail & I fame, captures – to the changes of location and conflict. Which includes Larry and friend Gray (James Keach, Stacey’s brother and very good) as ambulance drivers in World War I (Larry was a pilot in the novel). And Larry rejecting marriage to Isabel and taking off to Paris rather than settling down to a stockbroking career. And Larry working as a coal miner. And then heading off to India. When he returns, Gray and Isabel have married, although the former is in a bad way, bankrupted by the Depression – his father having committing suicide following the Crash – and suffering terrible headaches. The headaches part, Larry, being very zen, cures. He also begins a relationship with old friend Sophie (Theresa Russell), whose life also fell apart after her husband and child died in a car accident; she has taken to the bottle, and opium, and prostitution.

The occasional moment in this litany of misery – among his peers – stands out, such as Gray putting his fists through a window when he hears the news of his father. But Hicks isn’t remotely sympathetic as Isabel, and it’s difficult to see why Larry liked her to begin with. It’s no real surprise when she engages in enormously spiteful, vindictive behaviour later. Russell looks very fetching in her Louise Brooks bob, but she has an indulgent role and indulges it too readily. None of these characters is terribly interesting, which means that, unassisted by Byrum’s pacelessness, the picture drags whenever they’re around.

And it tends to drag when Murray’s around too. He fitfully musters his patented easy charm and likeable quips (“You haven’t tried an aspirin for these headaches?” he asks Gray), but he’s entirely unable to suggest an inner life for his character. In that sense, you might suggest Byrum is getting across something of the novel, but rather by omission of purpose. The India passage, in Byrum and Murray’s envisaging at any rate, should be everything to The Razor’s Edge, but it’s resolutely unaffecting, except for a brief and witty appearance by Saeed Jaffrey.

Indeed, the highlight for me – in terms of the picture’s spiritual bent – comes when Larry is on his mining stint, and he saves initially gruff miner Mackenzie (Peter Vaughn). Larry invites him for a drink, during which the older man observes “You read funny books for a coal miner”. He then reveals the extent of his reading and knowledge (the Essenes, Aristotle, Plato, Znachor, the Russian sorcerer): “You’ve never read the Upanishads? You really don’t know anything, do you?” Mackenzie then gives him a copy, despite never lending his books to miners as “They’ve got dirty hands”. However, he stresses “…you won’t find the answer in a book. You’ll have to go there”. It’s easily the best scene in the film, partly because Vaughn is utterly riveting, but also because there’s suddenly a sense of purpose and passion, where previously The River’s Edge has been content to drift as aimlessly as its hero.

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