So, with a disliked cameo in the controversial new Ghostbusters, and duds in the form of A Very Murray Christmas and Rock the Kasbah, recent times have not been overly kind to Bill Murray. Yes, he was Baloo in the superb new Jungle Book, but it’s a far cry from the days when everyone’s favourite master of dry wit could headline movies and draw crowds. From Meatballs to Caddyshack, Stripes to the original two Ghostbusters, from Scrooged to Groundhog Day, there was a time when Murray was a titan of cinematic comedy.
Of course, like many comics, Murray is no stranger to drama, but long before Broken Flowers and Lost in Translation, it would be in the second adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s famous soul-searching novel The Razor’s Edge (previously filmed in 1946 with Tyrone Power), that we’d see him go serious. It’s the story of Larry, a socialite who joins World War I as a voluntary ambulance driver (changed from the book’s fighter pilot). The harrowing experience drastically alters Larry’s outlook on the world, leaving him adrift back home, and so begins an expansive journey across the globe to rediscover himself, much to the confusion of his friends and family.
I’ll not beat around the bush and address the burning question; how is Murray? To be honest, he holds his own pretty well, making Larry likeable and aloof while greatly toning down his Murray-sark, and his reserve makes you buy him as a ‘lost soul’, though sometimes, a little too lost perhaps. The performance is rough around the edges, with some stiffness which I assume was meant to be profound or insightful but just wasn’t. However, Murray has strong backup, including Catherine Hicks and Theresa Russell as the two key women in his life whose own starts to change with his, James Keach as his best friend and the underrated Denholm Elliot as the society keen Uncle of one of the girls. We even get Brian Doyle Murray in here as the tough old officer Piedmont, who schools Larry on the realities of the trenches, and he balances morbidly comic and serious well.
Speaking of doing well, Razor’s Edge is no slacker from a production standpoint, and while it may not be as grandiose a period piece as say, Heaven’s Gate, it still fully conveys the scope of Larry’s globetrotting journey. From the coal mines of England and trenches of France to the shanty towns of India and the snow-covered mountains of Tibet, director John Byrum really dwarfs Larry in these far off lands with a Lean-ian eye. On the music front, Jack Nitzsche (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) delivers something moving, mainly revolving around a strings-heavy motif that does add a little extra to the film’s balancing of scale yet intimacy.
The Razor’s Edge assembles a lot of great components, and yet, unfortunately, never fully meets expectations. From a writing standpoint, co-written by Murray as well, this is down to the inciting incident that leads to Larry’s spiritual journey and the main focus of the film: it just isn’t well developed enough. The World War I portion isn’t very long, and you don’t really get the impression that Larry is all that scarred by it. Part of this is down to Murray’s rigidity, so we don’t get enough emotion, but also, they try to give him a relationship with Piedmont. The limited screen time they share sees them more at odds or Larry being bewildered by Piedmont’s brashness, so why does his death matter so much more to Larry than all the others he’s already seen on the battlefield, especially during a bloodbath like World War I no less?
This is the one critical element where the film really has to be as visceral and charged as possible to give the full emotional effect, but instead, it’s very nonchalant about it. This makes Larry’s journey feel nowhere near as powerful as it so badly needs to be if this is what drives most of the narrative. This is even worse because, honestly, the rest of the film’s story is handled fairly well: We see how Larry’s behaviour affects those around him and how their lives change when he goes away and then comes back, and what happens to them in the interim. Even the contrast between his soul-searching and their more materialistic lifestyle in the Roaring 20s is well utilised. However, because of one botched element, all of these other narrative components feel less engaging than they should be.
It’s a real pity because you can see the talent on-screen: great production values, touching score and a quality cast, but its reasons for obscurity are all too apparent. That said, it’s still worth at least one viewing, as almost a strange novelty, a relic, of an era gone by: these strange high brow vanity projects by performers more known for mass comical appeal. You’d never see a big studio today backing, say, Orlando with Melissa McCarthy, or David Spade in an adaptation of Crime And Punishment. That, truly, would be walking a line as difficult as a razor’s edge.
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