The handsomely mounted 1984 remake of Razor's Edge managed to be both stubbornly old-fashioned yet ahead of its time, in that audiences weren't ready for Bill Murray in a serious dramatic role and because Murray hadn't yet matured into a convincing dramatic actor. For Murray the callowness of youth eventually gave way to something infinitely richer and more soulful. As with fellow late-bloomer Robert Forster, Murray's performances in Rushmore, Lost In Translation and Broken Flowers benefit from every wrinkle, bit of sagging skin and professional disappointment the actor ever endured. There is a sadness at the core of his performance here that would take decades to flower fully, a persistent melancholy that can be heartbreaking in the right context.
But in 1984 no one, not even Murray himself, could have predicted that the SNL alum would become an Oscar-nominated, internationally acclaimed character actor and muse of filmmakers like Sofia Coppola, Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch, all of whom wrote powerhouse roles specifically for him. Furthermore, taking the lead role in an epic M. Somerset Maugham adaptation about nothing less than man's search for meaning in the universe after appearing in goofy fluff like Caddyshack, Stripes and Meatballs is like taking a few voice lessons, then trying out for the lead in La Boheme.
Like many popular funnymen eager to embrace their inner thespian Murray was suspected of getting above his raising, creatively speaking, and The Razor's Edge was such a colossal flop that Murray essentially took four years off to study at the Sorbonne. He returned older, wiser, and infinitely more willing to overlook colossal paydays in favor of taking smaller roles in quirky independent fare.
Murray obviously saw much of himself in the spiritual seeker at the center of The Razor's Edge. According to Wikipedia when Murray found out John Byrum wanted to adapt The Razor's Edge for the big screen he called him up at four in the morning and introduced himself as "Larry Darrell", the book's protagonist. Murray co-wrote the script with Byrum and agreed to appear in one of the Ghostbusters movies solely on the condition that Columbia would finance what had become his dream project.
It's wholly understandable why Columbia would be reluctant to fund what is essentially Bill Murray And The Meaning Of Life. Everyone understands what's at stake when Snidely Whiplash ties the heroine to the train tracks but it's considerably harder to create a sense of urgency for one man's search for spiritual fulfillment. Audiences consequently weren't exactly on the edge of their seats waiting with baited breath to see if Murray would be able to attain a state of Zen calm before time ran out. The Razor's Edge journey is largely an internal, spiritual one and spiritual, internal journeys are head to convey in visual, cinematic terms.
In The Razor's Edge, Murray's proto-beatnik leaves his idyllic Illinois town to work as a paramedic in the first World War only to come back irrevocably changed. The prospect of a cushy job and secure life with fiancé Catherine Hicks suddenly holds little appeal for him so he embarks on a global journey to find himself. Hicks, meanwhile, marries staid but dull James Keach while Murray's hometown friend Theresa Russell embarks on a harrowing downward spiral leading to the opium dens and whorehouses of Paris.
Murray has several inherent drawbacks as a dramatic actor. Murray is perhaps the most ironic movie star in existence. Everything he says seems to belong in air quotes, which isn't a problem when he's playing a zany camp counselor or ghost-buster but is much more problematic during heavy emotional scenes.
I sometimes suspect that the difference between Murray's comic and tragic side boils down to slight smirk=comedy whereas slightly pensive frown=tragedy. In A Razor's Edge Murray is a cipher, a sphinx. The drama here is supposed to be written on Murray's face but he remains one of cinema's great stone-faces, deadpan down to his DNA.
The Razor's Edge consequently blows hot and cold. Much of its fire comes from Theresa Russell, whose moody performance as a lost soul blearily sinking into the gutter boasts all the passionate conviction lacking from Murray's lead performance. A notable exception is a haunting scene where Murray delivers an improvised eulogy for a gruff captain that's all the more affecting for being borderline insulting and abusive. According to Wikipedia the scene doubles as Murray's farewell to John Belushi. If that weren't enough to give it all sorts of weird personal resonance the dead officer is played by Murray's real-life brother Brian Doyle, who has a stunning supporting role as the hard-ass officer who subjects green recruits to a crash course in the grim realities of life during wartime.
Movies like this make me wish I'd never come up with a ranking system for MYOF. The Razor's Edge doesn't really work for many of the reasons I just listed but it's strangely affecting and contains individual sequences of enormous power. In terms of Murray's career it's a fascinating detour, a test run of sorts for later dramatic roles custom-tailored to Murray's persona.
If The Razor's Edge is ultimately a failure it's an honest, noble one. I tend to think of labels and categories as necessary evils. Nobody likes to labeled and labels are for the most part inherently reductive. The whole point of My Year Of Flops is to illustrate that there is ample good where people least suspect it and weaknesses in even the strongest films. So I'm going to give The Razor's Edge a very weak "Secret Success" in no small part due to my affection for its star.
The Razor's Edge never quite reaches its destination but there are all manner of minor pleasures to be gleaned along the way.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success?:Secret Success