Lock Yourself in Weekend: Bill Murray Movies, Five Ways


Lock yourself in weekend for Bill Murray movies? Forget about it. To create list of five or six essential Bill Murray films would be just silly. The man is a national treasure. So instead of creating just one weekend of Bill Murray fun, we created five. One for every Murray Mood: The Cameos, Supporting Roles, The Serious Stuff, Under-appreciated Gems, and Comedy Classics.

The Cameos

Some movies use Bill Murray like an appetizer; small but bold. Thankfully, Murray is a big and bold enough personality to make a big impression in what is sometimes, nothing more than a scene, sometimes even playing just himself. If you want a variety of films this weekend, but still want a hint of Murray, try these films featuring memorable cameos from Murray.

1. Little Shop of Horrors.  In the musical remake of the Roger Corman classic, Murray played the masochist patient of Steve Martin (a role originally created by Jack Nicholson). He has just one scene in this delightful movie starring Rick Moranis, but Murray makes it count by playfully showing that his pain is actually a pleasure…sexual pleasure. Watch a taste here.

2. Coffee and Cigarettes.  Jim Jarmusch is a fan of Murray, and certainly sees something deeper behind his personality than most. He used it well in other movies (mentioned later), but his opportunity to play himself in Coffee and Cigarettes is certainly one of his most charming on screen moments. In Jarmush’s collection of short films, Murray plays himself opposite Wutang clan members, who have the same reaction everyone has to Bill Murray when he’s trying to go incognito in a crowd. Here’s just a taste.

3. Zombieland.  Twitter was up in arms when people started giving away the mysterious cameo appearance many considered the highlight of the movie. It didn’t hurt that Murray not only played himself, but even made some jokes about his career (that Garfield line is priceless). And somehow, director Rubin Fleischer makes his final moments simultaneously hilarious and sad. Watch yourself some zombieland.

4. Grand Budapest Hotel.  In someways, Murray is almost like Wes Anderson’s Hitchcock cameo…you know it’s coming and you are constantly on the lookout for him. Grand Budapest Hotel is possibly Murray’s smallest role in an Anderson films, but it wouldn’t feel like a Wes Anderson film if he didn’t at least make an appearance. Besides, if he didn’t have his two minutes on screen, we couldn’t have had this behind the scenes featurette of him exploring the city. Here’s a clip to whet the appetite.

Supporting Roles

If you need a little more Murray in your diet this weekend, consider this set of movies which feature Murray in substantial supporting roles (although not the leads) which also some of his impressive variety.

1.  Caddyshack.  The truth is, story-wise, Murray’s groundskeeper character Carl doesn’t have much to do in terms of “plot.” But it isn’t as if Caddyshack’s plot is that important. We watch and love Caddyshack for the characters, and Carl is one of the greatest. According to legend, the role was supposed to be one or two scenes, but Murray was so funny, and brought so much to the character, Harold Ramis kept bringing him back to set. Considering Murray improvised his now iconic “Cinderella Story” scene, it seems like a wise decision. Watch Bill in action.

2.  Tootsie.  Murray was always eager to step away from pure comedy, so he finished his time on SNL by taking a relatively small supporting role in Tootsie. He was so serious about making the step he asked not to be credited or promoted as one of the stars, so audiences wouldn’t be confused into thinking it was a “Bill Murray comedy.” It worked, and Murray’s performance fits perfectly into the surprisingly thoughtful but hilarious comedy and has real chemistry with Dustin Hoffman. Murray plays the slow-burn straight-man best friend opposite Hoffman, selling one-liners while always letting Hoffman get the big laughs as perfectionist Michael turned Dorothy. Here’s a reminder of this great role.

3. The Royal Tenenbaums. Gene Hackman was the star, and the focus of Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums understandably on the family. But Murray’s cockhold husband, despite his relatively few scenes, adds considerable dimension and humor to film. Yes he’s a brilliant psychologist with a “strange” patient and depressed wife, but of all the characters in this film (along with Danny Glover) is the only outside observing the family. Not that he’s an entirely functional person; as he claims to want to die when learning his wife wants to leave him with the same detachment of someone asking for chance. Take a look at a clip from The Royal Tenenbaums.

4.  Get Low.  Starring Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray plays a funeral home owner hired to plan a wake for the still living Duvall. Duvall was highly praised (probably deserving of some Awards recognition) for his lovely performance. But the entire cast is great, especially Murray’s low key, swaggering salesman who is entirely engaging from start to finish as the slick character with a hidden heart. And seeing him on equal footing with Duvall proves once and for all that Murray isn’t just a personality, he’s 100% an actor. Here’s a clip from Get Low.

The Serious Stuff

Like most comics actors, Bill Murray really wants to be taken seriously as an actor. It’s been a hard road (who wants to cry when they could be laughing). But today, a Bill Murray film seems as likely to be drama as they are to be comedy, and often seamlessly mix the two to make films better.

1.  Razors Edge.  The quintessential story of personal exploration, Murray’s personal connection to the story were so strong, he fought to play the character and cowrote the film. It’s easy to see what Murray saw in this story of Post-Traumatic Stress, the horrors of war, survivors guilt, and the philosophical search for the meanings of life. At the time, the prestigious film adaption of the classic book was greeted as a failure, but over the years the period film has found a small but devoted fan-base. Watch a clip.

2.  Groundhog Day.  That old saying a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down seems to be very true. Murray’s continued on screen discussion of the meaning of life continued, but in Groundhog’s Day, the inclusion of comedy gives just enough balance to the heavy conversation. Yes, Groundhog’s Day is hilarious and Murray’s sardonic, asshole weatherman is comparable to the best of Larry David’s comedy. But the scenes which resonate so strongly are moments when he comes to terms with his insecurities with the heavier side of life; questions about religion, death, love, and how to spend the limited time we have on earth. Here’s a clip from this great performance.

3.  Lost in Translation.  Somewhat aloof and detached, the character of Bob Harris is literally tailor made for Murray. Lonely but still outwardly charming, there is a hidden sadness he seems to experience living life under a microscope. The man-child qualities of his this middle-aged man, essentially with the same level of maturity as his 20 something companion, made Lost in Translation a surprisingly melancholy experience, even while Murray was cracking everyone up with his cocky liquor ad. A great clip from a great movie.

4.  Broken Flowers.  Perhaps the perfect compliment to Lost in Translation, the loneliness and detachment from life Bob experienced in Japan is what makes his character in Broken Flowers such an interesting story about seld-discovery in middle age. No different from who he was as a young man, Murray’s Don Jonston (Don Juan, get it) was nothing more than a step in the evolving lives of the women in his life; each of whom simply outgrow him. From 20 years old to 50, Don was never more than he appeared, which was both completely fair to his lovers, but still made him a disappointment to women who fell in love with him. And Murray is one of the perfect actors to lead a Jim Jarmusch movie, as he brings more to characters than what is written in the script, while still maintaining Jarmusch’s unobtrusive, low-key style. Watch a little from Broken Flowers.

Under-appreciated Gems

These might not make the greatest hits box-set, but Murray has made some great movies that never quite get their due, or fell just below the radar. They might not be the all time classics, but if looking for comedy that is just one step below his most iconic, you can’t go wrong with these.

1.  Meatballs.  In the subgenre of camp movies, Meatballs is certainly tops the list. On the surface it’s basically a teen sex comedy with a main character who is oversexed and politically incorrect. But for a multitude of reasons, the movie elevates itself and shows genuine heart. Yes Murray’s character makes a lot of inappropriate jokes about women, is pre-occupied with the lives of his CITs, and seems extremely irresponsible for a teacher. But his moments of encouragement, with the campers, CITs, and his protege Rudy, are so sincere, he actually does make you excited to simply participate in life; even if you don’t/can’t win. Watch a clip from Meatballs.

2.  Where the Buffalo Roam.  Who better to play Hunter S. Thompson than Bill Murray? An almost formless narrative done as a buddy film about Thompson and activist/attorney Carl Lazlo (Peter Boyle) the odd structure attempts to capture some of what made Thompson such a revolutionary writer. The film isn’t perfect; at times it can be downright incoherent. But Murray’s controlled mania and performance-impression of Thompson shows how good an actor Murray would become, and he had great chemistry with Boyle (who relishes the role of Lazlo), René Auberjonois, and Bruno Kirby in this adaptation of an obituary written by Thompson. Here’s a clip from Where the Buffalo Roam.

3.  What About Bob.  When it first came out, What About Bob was seen as mean-spirited and crude for making a comedy about a mentally ill man and his homicidal psychologist. But once Bob made its way to television syndication, there was a new appreciation for the dark comedy. Murray’s Bob is inherently lovable, and so eager to make himself better, we forgive even his greatest improprieties, and come to almost hate Richard Dreyfus psychologist; even if we identify with his frustration with the houseguest he can’t get out of his life. Watch a little What About Bob.

4.  Quick Change.  The bank robbery comedy almost seems like a mythical movie in the filmography of Murray. How did the movie costarring Geena Davis, Randy Quaid, and Jason Robarbs slip through the cracks…especially when half the movie features Murray dressed as a gun toting clown? But like Razor’s Edge, Murray’s attempt to work behind the scenes, this time as a a co-director, only found an afterlife on home video. But Murray’s slick, angry New Yorker character, so burned out by the constant stress of the city that he becomes desperate enough to hatch an ingenious robbery, is one of Murray’s best performances and plays into all his strengths as a comic personality. A clip from Quick Change.

Comedy Classics

1.  Stripes.  On a personal note, this is probably my favorite Murray film. Not only does it have some classic Murray monologues (his locker-room speech comes to mind) but his camaraderie with all these great actors, including Warren Oats and John Candy, shows Murray’s quintessential smart-ass persona at its best. Even women were charmed by his antics, including his weird foreplay with PJ Soles using a spatula. But if there is one reason Stripes has become a classic, it is probably the onscreen friendship between Ramis and Murray, which comes across as completely real and authentic. Watch a clip from Stripes.

2.  Ghostbusters.  30 years later, Ghostbusters hit theaters last week and still can get audiences into the seats. As pointed out recently by fan John Hodgeman, Murray’s Peter Venkman’s participation in this scheme makes no sense. We never know why he not only goes along with Aykroyd and Ramis’s (considering he’s the cynic), but he forces their hand to set up this business. He seems to have no training, knowledge, or interest in the supernatural, and yet goes along with everything; sometimes even talking them into things. But as Ivan Reitman described the make-up of the team, if Ramis was the brains and Aykroyd the heart, Murray was the mouth; the Groucho of the group in the classic sense of comedy teams. Called a hustler at the beginning of the film, he’s quick to swindle. seduce and frustrate potential clients and use his friends research to make a profit, all while making audiences like his character just enough to forgive his bad behavior and root for him to succeed (and even get the girl). Here’s a clip, Ghostbusters style.

3.  Scrooged.  It seems every great star needs at least one great Christmas movie which can every year. The inspired Scrooged is just that film for Murray, who translated Dicken’s Scrooge into an 80s yuppy with shrewd business sense and bad personality. His Frank Cross’s journey shows Murray’s slowly opening his heart, until all his emotions are flowing, unable to be the man he once was. Murray often played unlikable characters who had to be redeemed, but the fact that he had that potential, and audiences want him to be the best version of himself, is what makes him such a great onscreen personality. After all, not every actor can deliver a Christmas speech like the one that ends Scrooged without it coming across as forced or corny sentimentality. Watch a little Scrooged.

4.  Rushmore.  His first collaboration with Wes Anderson reignited his career, started a new stage in his career, and tapped into an aspect of his personality many had overlooked. After his unparalleled-successes in his 20s and 30s, older Murray is searching for more in life than the material. Worldweary and depressed, the disconnect between outward success and human relationships makes his Herman Blume a memorable character whose pettiness masks his sadness with his own life. He finds a new chance to connect and be a better person with Jason Schwartzman’s eager Max, who proves to be a little too close to Murray’s slicker younger self when they develop a mutual attraction to the same woman. And like most of Murray’s best characters, the chance for true redemption is as heartfelt as it is hilarious to watch. Here’s just a tiny bit to get you started.


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Lesley Coffin is a feature editor for FF2media and has also written the books Lew Ayres: Hollywood Conscientious Objector (2012) and Hitchcock's Stars (2014), and currently writing a third book. Follow on twitter @filmbiographer for thoughts on movies and cat pictures.
Lesley Coffin
Lesley Coffin
Lesley Coffin is a feature editor for FF2media and has also written the books Lew Ayres: Hollywood Conscientious Objector (2012) and Hitchcock's Stars (2014), and currently writing a third book. Follow on twitter @filmbiographer for thoughts on movies and cat pictures.