The idea of watching Robert Duvall hiss and sputter as a bitter old hermit and Bill Murray attempt to appease him as a smarmy money hungry undertaker is like catnip for any semi-cultured cinephile, more than enough reason to hand over your hard earned and settle in with the company of two grizzled stalwarts who are still very much on top of their game.

So much the better, then, that Get Low, from debut feature film director Aaron Schneider, is a strong and affecting work, though not the soul-scorching tear jerker Schneider clearly wanted it to be. The film ultimately falls victim to The Mr Holland’s Opus syndrome: there is a prolonged built up to a finale that won’t meet the dramatic expectations it expends considerable effort building, but at least Schneider comes admirably close.

The pitch is that a jaded old grump named Felix Bush (Duvall) emerges from a 40 year self-imposed exodus from society for a simple reason: he wants to organise his funeral. He wants to make it a big party. He wants people to come from far and wide and share their stories of what they know about him. And most importantly he wants to be sitting front row centre, listening to it all, very much alive.

The screenplay was inspired by a real life event from the 1930s, inevitably an inseparable mesh of fact and folklore, which makes it perfect fodder for the film biz.

Duvall fills out the crucial role with precisely measured charm. The screenplay, particularly his dialogue, helps him along the predictable route of peeling away a rough, inaccessible skin to show us the decent person underneath it — a sort of old school rendition of “geet tha hail offa ma lawn” eat-a-lemon characterizations. The soft-faced enigma of Bill Murray is put to good use as a stoical world-weary entrepreneur.

Bush’s character arc is unravelled at about the right pace, with the town’s myths about his past materializing into tangible back stories, particularly his association with old flame Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek) who returns to town following the death of her husband. The film’s dramatic opening images of a burning building were a misfire (no pun intended), an event Get Low’s dramatic resolution will obviously latch onto, which takes away from the film’s core mysteries.

Much of Get Low’s intrigue is generated by the slow unravel of Duvall’s character, the mystique surrounding his cantankerous spirit, egged on by suggestions sprinkled through act one and two that he wasn’t always like this. Schneider’s ending hinges heavily on what takes place at Bush’s funeral, a plot point that warmly repackages familiar themes of a person finding redemption by grappling with ghouls from the past. Far from must-see material, but it’s nicely measured and affecting.

Get Low’s Australian theatrical release date: May 26, 2011.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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