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Let’s All Cringe at the Death of a Clown Case File #177: Larger Than Life

During his interview with Marc Maron on the invaluable WTF podcast, Judd Apatow said he based the character of a wildly successful yet deeply depressed misanthrope in Funny People less on Adam Sandler, the actor who played him, than on Rodney Dangerfield. Sandler is by all accounts a well-adjusted, happy individual who has found a balance between riskier projects designed to satisfy his creative muse (Punch-Drunk Love, Spanglish, Reign Over Me, Funny People) and the kind of pandering horseshit the public actually wants to see, like Grown Ups. 

For his funnyman who has gained the world but lost his soul, Apatow tried to envision a comedy superstar who never got to make a Punch-Drunk Love or Funny People but was reduced to prostituting his gifts for giant paychecks. One of the film’s sharpest gags involves mock posters for the mindless high-concept vehicles that make Sandler’s character both fabulously well–to-do and mired in self-hatred. Apatow captured the existential angst of a fundamentally serious, melancholy man doomed by circumstances and the whims of the public to eternally inhabit the role of the class clown.

If a happily married, scandal-free family man like Sandler is the exception, then Dangerfield is the rule. He was the archetypal sad clown, a hard-drinking, depressive stoner and heavy cocaine user whose self-deprecating shtick couldn’t quite conceal genuine self-hatred and a palpable sense of desperation that persisted no matter how successful he became. In another anecdote about Dangerfield I believe I heard on WTF, a comedian recalled Dangerfield, who had his own eponymous comedy club, making a rare appearance at the legendary Comedy Store to try out new material, only to have someone in the audience yell out, “Why are you so sad?” The acute observation ended the evening for Dangerfield and marked the last time he’d ever try out material at the Comedy Store. 

I thought an awful lot about Sandler’s character in Funny People and Dangerfield while watching 1996’s Larger Than Life, in part because star Bill Murray is also such a famously melancholy and tormented funny man. After Larger Than Life and 1997’s The Man Who Knew Too Little—both of which bombed—Murray went from being a funnyman with a faintly tragic air to a professional depressive who lurched sad-eyed through a midlife crisis in film after film, a pervasive on-screen funk that stretches from 1998’s Rushmore through to 2003’s Lost In Translation, 2004’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, and 2005’s Broken Flowers. 

Following Rushmore, Murray successfully reinvented himself as a serious—one might even argue too serious—character actor. But 1996 found him in a strange professional limbo. Of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players, John Belushi and Gilda Radner were dead, Dan Aykroyd was well on his way to being a bit-player/vodka pitchman/blues promoter-exploiter/conspiracy theorist, Chevy Chase was stumbling lazily toward irrelevance, and Murray, arguably the most talented and accomplished of them all, found himself performing opposite an unruly pachyderm in a misbegotten film for kids. How could Larger Than Life not have incited epic soul-searching and a major career overhaul? How could a comic genius like Murray spend his days worrying he’d be stomped to death by a giant animal and not wonder where in the hell he went wrong? Larger Than Life is less a movie than a 93-minute assault on Murray’s battered dignity/professional wake-up call. 

People always seem surprised to see classy actors prostitute themselves for a paycheck. I find that ridiculous. Sure, in a perfect world Ben Kingsley would be able to devote himself completely to performing Shakespeare, but I don’t begrudge him mercenary appearances in Uwe Boll movies or Lucky Number Slevin. Actors get slathered in make-up to play expensive games of pretend while reading other people’s lines—if anything, they should be held to a lower standard than everyone else. They’re professional pretenders, for fuck’s sake, not nuns. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to feel shivers of sympathy for Murray as he spends the film playing second fiddle to a performing animal with a tiny brain and a body capable of destroying all in its path. That shit was beneath Matt LeBlanc’s dignity in Ed. Here it’s something resembling a modest tragedy. 

Larger Than Life at least looks modestly promising on paper. It was written by beloved Southern humorist Roy Blount Jr. and re-teamed Murray with Howard Franklin, his co-director on the terrific cult heist comedy Quick Change. It was shot by the great Elliot Davis (Out Of Sight), gives Murray an ostensibly juicy role as a third-rate inspirational speaker in desperate need of inspiration himself, and boasts an impressive supporting cast: Harve Presnell, Janeane Garofalo, Linda Fiorentino, Jeremy Piven (as a hard-charging agent of all things), and a young, shockingly clothed Matthew McConaughey in a scene-stealing bit part as a manic, conspiracy-theory-obsessed trucker. 

Not surprisingly, Larger Than Life peaks early, with Murray taking the podium at what is only the latest in an endless string of dispiriting speaking engagements at soul-crushing conventions and trade shows and announcing, in a perfect deadpan, “My father died before I was born trying to save a child drowning in icy water. It took me a long time before I stopped resenting that.” Such scenes, rooted in Murray’s flailing job as an inspirer-for-hire, find Murray inhabiting a role he played often and brilliantly on Saturday Night Live: the consummate show-business phony, oozing smarm and manufactured bonhomie. 

Then the plot kicks in, and the film begins a long, often tedious ramble to nowhere slowly. Murray’s father, it appears, didn’t die before he was born at all. Murray’s appearance-obsessed mother simply pretended that he’d died a hero’s death to hide her shame in having conceived a child with a traveling circus clown, as Murray learns when tenacious lawyer Presnell informs him that his father only recently died and left behind a very large inheritance. This delights Murphy until he discovers that the large inheritance in question is his father’s beloved elephant Vera. 

I’m no lawyer, but I suspect that if someone were to leave you a large, cumbersome, demanding, and expensive animal as an inheritance you would have the option to politely reject that inheritance and go about your life. That’s not how things work out in ridiculous comedies like this, however. When Murray tries to give the elephant back to Presnell, the lawyer brusquely informs him, “I am not in the elephant business!” It’s easy to imagine Sandler’s hack movie star in Funny People sleepwalking his way through a scene like this: 

Murray soon finds himself triply cursed: He has an elephant he doesn’t know what to do with, he somehow owes Presnell $35,000 for services rendered—I’m guessing an uncredited Robert Towne probably didn’t help with the plotting—and he has five days to get to Modesto, California, for a speaking engagement. So Murray does what anyone would do in his circumstances: He sets out on a wacky cross-country adventure to deliver the elephant to either animal loving do-gooder Janeane Garofalo or sexy animal trainer Linda Fiorentino. In a biting irony, Fiorentino, who trains animals for movies and TV shows and circuses and whatnot, is depicted as the sultry, seductive villain even though Larger Than Life obviously relied on people like her to train its elephants. Oh well, when Hollywood movies send out a message, it’s generally a case of “Do as a I say, not as I do.” 

In a recent Triple Feature entry, my colleague Keith pointed out that killer dog movies tend to fail because dogs aren’t terribly good actors. That’s even truer of elephants who aren’t Dumbo. Elephants aren’t terribly expressive creatures, because you can almost never see their mouths. Yet in order for Larger Than Life’s sappy, sentimental side to glean anything other than derisive, incredulous snickers, we need to believe that a single saintly pachyderm could melt Murray’s frosty heart and teach him to love again. 

Larger Than Life becomes an interspecies buddy comedy, but it’s also a singularly unsuccessful paternal drama about a lonely man reconnecting with the father he never knew through the elephant that improbably unites them. In this scene, the filmmakers lay on the mournful horns to tell us to be moved by Murray learning about his dad from a professional colleague of his nicknamed “The Human Blockhead.” 

Like pop music and playing center field, slapstick is a young man’s game. Nobody wants to be a fiftysomething Jerry Lewis in Hardly Working, yet Larger Than Life persists in having Murray flail his way through dispiriting pratfalls and physical comedy. In his early comedies, Murray’s deadpan under-reactions felt like an inveterate anarchist’s passive-aggressive rebellion against corrupt authority. Here, they merely broadcast Murray’s understandable lack of engagement with his material. Murray wears a simultaneously bored and humiliated look throughout the film that says, “I’m getting too old for this shit.” 

The film proceeds with all the unstoppable momentum of a heavily drugged elephant except for when McConaughey’s motor-mouthed trucker is onscreen. This clip derives its comic kick both from his breathless lunacy as he contemplates the mating practices of elephants and Murray’s priceless reaction shots. 

Early in the film, a carny colleague of Murray’s father mentions that Vera is the only elephant in the world capable of standing on her back legs and pushing a calliope up a mountain. In a shockingly, wholly unexpected turn of events, that very skill comes into play later in the film when Vera uses her singular gifts to save a church in a Mexican city populated solely by adorable children and saintly adults. Seriously. That elephant is a hero! 

Murray has clearly come too far to pawn off his new pal on the sort of evil animal trainer who would pimp her out to filmmakers like the people behind Larger Than Life, so Murray ultimately decides to do the right thing and give Vera to Garofalo. In a line that unforgettably captures everything that’s wrong and sappy and shameless about Larger Than Life, Murray somehow manages to say “You know they say an elephant never forgets. But what they don’t tell you is you never forget an elephant” without chuckling derisively. 

Larger Than Life may represent both a nadir and a turning point in Murray’s career, but it is not entirely without wisdom. Early in the film, a grizzled veteran of the circus tells Murray, “Everywhere you go there, every line of work, there are two kinds of people: There’s carnies and rubes. Don’t be on the rube side, kid. Don’t live the life of a rube.” Murray has the soul of a carny—the highest praise anyone can receive—but Larger Than Life is strictly for rubes. 

(Up next on circus month here at My Year of Flops: Jodie Foster and Robbie Robertson in Carny

Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure