Skip to main content

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.

Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Do you know that the leading cause of death for beavers is falling trees?

The Interpreter (2005) Sydney Pollack’s final film returns to the conspiracy genre that served him well in both the 1970s ( Three Days of the Condor ) and the 1990s ( The Firm ). It also marks a return to Africa, but in a decidedly less romantic fashion than his 1985 Oscar winner. Unfortunately the result is a tepid, clichéd affair in which only the technical flourishes of its director have any merit. The film’s main claim to fame is that Universal received permission to film inside the United Nations headquarters. Accordingly, Pollack is predictably unquestioning in its admiration and respect for the organisation. It is no doubt also the reason that liberal crusader Sean Penn attached himself to what is otherwise a highly generic and non-Penn type of role. When it comes down to it, the argument rehearsed here of diplomacy over violent resolution is as banal as they come. That the UN is infallible moral arbiter of this process is never in any doubt. The cynicism