Get Low (PG-13)
Kimball's Peak Three
Somewhere in the South during the Great Depression, an old man lived alone in the woods; one day, for reasons unknown, he decided to host his own funeral. That's the premise of Get Low, which draws upon a true story and asks the questions: By what process does a man become a reclusive codger? How might he unbecome one? And will a clean shave and an ironic yet redemptive ceremony be enough?
Given that the old man is played by Robert Duvall, there's another question, too: How should an audience respond when a performance comes so naturally to a great actor that he all but renders the film itself superfluous?
Felix Bush has not endeared himself to his community. He has a "No Trespassing" sign in his yard, but kids still throw rocks at his windows, so he puts up a "No Damn Trespassing" sign, which adds, "Beware of Mule." Although presented as a man of mystery, he is easy to recognize: anti-social, stubborn, sardonic, secretly cuddly.
It's already a surprise when Felix comes in to town at all; his quest for a living funeral just makes matters stranger. And it's fitting that the only person who might be of any use to him is a struggling undertaker and slightly seedy Chicago transplant played by Bill Murray. Just as it's intriguing that Felix's resurfacing doesn't escape the notice of a former lover, played by Sissy Spacek.
Admittedly this is a delicious setup; Get Low very considerately takes pains to establish its potential for greatness. Unfortunately, it never establishes that greatness, settling instead for patness. The script, by Chris Provenzano, Scott Seeke and C. Gaby Mitchell, has its honor, which first-time director Aaron Schneider will not risk offending, so his scenes become affectedly laconic, ploddingly paced and highly redolent of sentimental Southern Gothic schlock.
And maybe the filmmaker is too awed by the edifice of his leading man. Schneider's over-punctuating pauses do allow time to reflect on how much great work Duvall has done since his film debut as To Kill a Mockingbird's Boo Radley, another Southern rural pariah, nearly half a century ago. He's still got it, we're meant to think.
"I want everybody to come who's got a story to tell about me," Duvall's character explains to the mortician. Of course, Felix has his own story, about something awful from way back when that led to him living alone in the woods all these years. And there's one other thing: His living funeral will have a lottery, the winner of which will inherit his land.
None of these payoffs is worth the wait, and the movie seems to know it. Yet we feel for it — even when it embarrasses itself by importing Felix's forgotten antagonistic pal (Bill Cobbs), an old black preacher from long ago and far away, as if to say: Hey, Clint Eastwood has Morgan Freeman, so what if Duvall has this guy?
Low, indeed. We're only a few degrees away from Hallmark here, with David Boyd's cinematography cleverly concealing the requisite sepia in autumnal earth tones. But that's just how Get Low goes, taking some inherently lovely textures — Duvall's depth, Murray's wit, the lonely twang of a Dobro on the soundtrack — and planing them into something much too smooth. Maybe it was better off as merely a true story.