Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Razor's Edge (1984)

"The Razor's Edge" (John Byrum, 1984) The collaboration between Bill Murray and John Byrum on the screenplay is a case of good and bad: the screenplay's very good, respectful of Maugham, but also digging into Larry Darrell's experiences in World War I that made him a part of the "lost generation," and seek a higher truth than his social-climbing friends; the bad part is that Bill Murray stars in it.

At this point in his career, Murray was a popular comic genius,
taking a rather lackluster first year on "Saturday Night Live," and parlaying it into a film career where he virtually ad-libbed "Meatballs" into a suprise box-office success. "Stripes,""Where the Buffalo Roam,""Caddyshack,""Tootsie" (uncredited, so as not to distract) all built his reputation to where he was becoming a box-office phenomenon (and the capper, "Ghost Busters," he agreed to star in to secure "The Razor's Edge" being made).

Byrum does a fine job directing
the film: the locations (particularly the Tibetan ones) are lush and filled with color, and the performances are spot on: Theresa Russell does wonders with a role that can fall into cliche, but she brings a freshness to it that makes it all the more poignant, and Catherine Hicks makes her "Isabel" more sympathetic and far less hissable than she was in the 1946 adaptation.

The "sore thumb" is Murray—but not entirely. When called on to be dramatically appropriate he is there, but the temptation for the young star to punch up scenes with ad-libs that seem too contemporary or are dramatically inappropriate was not squelched by the director*—either because he owed Murray too much for getting it made, or because he didn't want to throw a bushel over Murray's "star-power."

And one can understand why Murray did it. Larry Darrell is supposed to be an attractive, if slightly remote and disconnected, man. There has to be a reason people care about him so much, especially as he abandons them to go off on his spiritual quest, and why Isabel takes the course of actions to keep him to herself.
Tyrone Power, in the 1946 version, employed a "thousand yard stare" to suggest deep-seated consciousness, unconvincingly—and, he was Tyrone Power, and the man's "star quality" was sufficient motivation. But, Murray turns Larry from a "party-boy" to a troubled "slacker" with a goofy sense of humor. He's always the funniest guy in the room, and his quips are his expression of affection for his friends. It's the "silver chord" that is shared by pre-war Larry and post-war Larry, and that binds him to his old friends. It's a neat solution to the problem of Murray not being Tyrone Power in looks. But, Murray's funny is a bit too hip for a 1920's room. And though it may occasionally crack up his co-stars, it also makes him the odd man out in the entire scenario.

It's too bad. Given a bit more restraint, this might have been the adaptation of one of
Maugham's best books. As its stands, it did make me dissatisfied enough to want to search out the original book, for which I'll always be grateful.

* The most egregious being Larry's empathetic subterfuge of presenting the stricken Uncle Elliott a much desired invitation to a function and Murray's ad-lib: "If it's a costume party you could wear that cute little bunny suit..." It's so out of left-field, especially at that particular juncture, that it undercuts one of the most dramatic moments of the movie, and Denholm Elliott's terrific performance, it's a bit grand-standing on Murray's part. Maybe I'm being unfair and it wasn't supposed to make the final cut and Columbia insisted there be more "Murray comedy," but it is such an artistic gaffe, that you would think that someone would have objected.

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