Get Low, opening Friday (7/30/10) in limited release, is the kind of understated comedy that they don't seem to make very often, for fear the audience won't have the patience (and because the film's stars are almost all candidates for AARP membership).
But this film, directed by former cinematographer Aaron Schneider from a script by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, is exactly the kind of smart, low-key and heartfelt film we need far more of. Achieving that mix is not as easy as it looks, of course, but that's the beauty of it.
The invaluable Robert Duvall plays Felix Bush, a notorious hermit in 1930s Tennessee. Hairy, unkempt and antisocial, he is a local legend in his little town, with a variety of boogie-man-type tales associated with him -- including one that he's a murderer. Still, there are very few people who actually know anything about him.
One day he unexpectedly walks into the funeral parlor of Frank Quinn (Bill Murray, in a slyly exasperated performance), who is struggling to make ends meet during the Depression. Felix is interested in pricing a funeral -- his own -- and one other thing: He wants to stage it before he dies, so he can hear what people have to say about him.
Indeed, he challenges the public: Here's the opportunity to tell every tale ever told about Felix Bush, to his face. When word gets out -- even with a fee for participating -- the public goes wild with anticipation.
So does Quinn, who details his assistant, Buddy (Lucas Black), to finalize the deal with Bush: "He's got hermit money," Quinn says greedily, seeing the payday that may finally pull him out of the red.
Yet Bush has more on his mind than simply listening to other people tell tall tales about him. Some of it peeks out when he crosses paths with Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek, still radiant at 60), one of the only people in town who seems unafraid of Felix. Indeed, Felix is downright docile with Mattie -- and seems inspired by their meeting to clean up his act, getting a haircut and shaving his beard.
There are, indeed, secrets. And there are hints that these secrets require forgiveness. But as a preacher tells Felix, "You can't buy forgiveness. It's free, but you do have to ask for it."
The funeral becomes the talk of the town, a cause celebre among the backwoods folk. They've all heard Felix Bush stories for most of their lives but few of them have ever actually seen him. And the ripples from the impending memorial have an impact on everyone involved: from the shifty Frank Quinn (who uncomfortably finds himself saddled with a conscience he didn't know he had) to Mattie (who has tried to put Felix in her past) to young Buddy (whose life becomes intertwined with Felix in ways he didn't expect).
Yet there's nothing antic or shticky about the comedy in Get Low. It's all on an intensely human level. The laughs are never rollicking, but they are there -- and so are the moments of emotional truth that keep the story moving forward on its surprising path.
Credit the cast: the always wily Duvall, the unpredictable Murray, the gracious but gritty Spacek. This is an ensemble of canny veterans who know terrific material when they've got it, and they play it for all its worth without ever showing the effort.
Get Low is a subtle treasure, a soulful film with a wicked wit. It leaves you with a sense of completeness that too few films inspire.