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Movie Review: Get Low

August 27, 2010

As writing students learn in Fiction 101, Rule #1 (well, maybe it’s rule #2 or #16) of crafting a good story is never to build a story around the revelation of a BIG SECRET at the very end. Why? Because, inevitably, that secret will disappoint. What’s more, a good story gives readers something to care about all along, not just the payoff at the end.

Seems Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, the writers of Get Low weren’t paying attention in class that day cause the entire first 7/8 of the film is all a big lead-up to THE SUPER SECRET SECRET that will be revealed at the end. In essence, it’s all a big, elaborately carved and gilded frame for the five minute story to be told by Felix Bush, the backwoods hermit character played, with trademark laconic gravitas and streak of unpredictability, by Robert Duvall. If you, like many, are a fan of Duvall, this might just be enough. Critics have been lying down to heap praise upon Duvall for this film, and it is certainly a great performance, but like a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, all the praise is also something of a tribute to his age (80) and longevity in the business. What’s more Felix Bush has certain commonalities with some of Duvall’s greatest roles—the preacher he played in The Apostle, or the country singer in Tender Mercies. In fact, the moment the entire movie leads to, when Felix Bush finally—after much dithering and stalling—tells his tale, is delivered in a virtuoso style not unlike that of a great revival preacher of the day.

Sissy Spacek also does much with a small role. Every scene she’s in is intriguing and rich. Unfortunately, in the end, it’s clear that the screenwriters have given her little to work with. The real rewarding performance in the movie comes from Bill Murray, who steals every scene he’s in and then some. His warm, comic delivery, while familiar, feels fresh and specific to the character. It’s also a welcome relief from the overall earnestness of the production.

Director Aaron Schneider started out as a cinematographer, and it shows. This is a gorgeously produced movie, with the perfect set dressing, costumes, music, editing and cinematography. I’m going to sound grumpy here, but I found it all far too perfect. In a story set in the mountains in the Depression, people wear beautiful attire and drive shiny cars and live in handsomely furnished, brightly painted houses. What’s more, it’s the uniformity of it all that I found oppressive. From the evenly burning house that begins the film (every window in the house emitting flames at the exact same rate, the kind of fire one sees only in Hollywood) to the picturesquely carved sign planted beside Felix’s driveway (“No damn trespassing”) that looks as though he picked it up at the Cracker Barrel gift shop, to the perfectly distributed and obediently attentive crowd that listens to his speech at the end, this movie shows absolutely no sign of the mess and spontaneity of real life. I kept wishing someone had cared as much about the story and characters as they obviously did with the look of it all.

As so often happens in movies based on true stories, Get Low’s writers seem so constrained by the facts that they are unable to tell a real story. Despite all the set-up, we never really learn anything about Felix Bush or the tragedy that caused him to retreat from life. It’s better to treat it all as a tall tale with eccentric and entertaining characters, not ones we actually care about.


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