Bill Murray: 10 essential films

These are some of the finest places to seek out the mirth and magnificence of Bill Murray.

21 September 2016

By Brogan Morris

Broken Flowers (2005)

They say it’s evolve or die. For close to 40 years, Bill Murray has been a star, but never the same kind of star from one decade to the next. For Saturday Night Live and the major comedy movie directors of the late 70s and early 80s, he was a valuable commodity as a team player. For much of the 90s, he was a bona fide leading man in some of Hollywood’s biggest laffers. In the 2000s, he was recast as king of the seriocomic indie. Now, having maintained his relevance for so long, Murray finds himself settled comfortably into the role of elder statesman, regularly popping up in effective cameos and supporting roles that remind us why he’s been a giant for so long. Here are 10 essential films from four decades of the Murricane.

Caddyshack (1980)

Director: Harold Ramis

Caddyshack (1980)

Murray was such a force on the set of Caddyshack that he – along with co-stars Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield – edged out original lead Michael O’Keefe, working his way from bit-player to main cast member through sheer improvisational nous. The constantly ad-libbing Murray turned his Carl Spackler from a Harpo Marx-inspired silent character into a shell-shocked, gopher-hunting greenskeeper let loose on a Florida golf course. Caddyshack is less a film than it is a collection of vignettes, and Murray’s unpredictability ensures his sketches remain the most absurdly compelling.

Stripes (1981)

Director: Ivan Reitman

Stripes (1981)

A Cheech and Chong vehicle is repurposed for Murray and his Caddyshack director Harold Ramis, starring as two down-on-their-luck Chicagoans who ill-advisedly join the army in search of adventure. Stripes is, like Caddyshack, one of the bloated, anarchic comedies from the period, offering Murray another chance to display his off-kilter improv skills, only this time alongside an equally capable foil. Murray and Ramis would together make more successful films, but their easy on-screen chemistry was never more potent than it is in Stripes, holding Ivan Reitman’s sporadically hilarious film together even as it meanders its way to the finish line.

Ghostbusters (1984)

Director: Ivan Reitman

Ghostbusters (1984)

It’s a movie Murray made only to secure funding for his First World War passion project The Razor’s Edge, but while the latter quickly faded into curiosity it was Ghostbusters that proved to be one of the biggest hits of Murray’s career. Here settled on the world-weary, devastatingly sarcastic persona he’d successfully utilise for years to come, Murray – perhaps conscious of the fact he’s on a contract gig – is hysterically throwaway with the material. Effects-driven blockbusters can swamp their stars, but in Ghostbusters Murray’s dry style influences the whole tone. 

Quick Change (1990)

Director: Bill Murray

Quick Change (1990)

Murray’s sole stint behind the camera (he co-directed with Howard Franklin) isn’t as warmly remembered as his other classics. That might be because Quick Change is one of the harder ones to love: our three leads (Murray, Geena Davis and Randy Quaid) are amateur crooks attempting to flee New York City for Fiji after pulling a major bank job, while the characters they meet on their journey out of town are no friendlier. It’s black comedy, with a sour turn from Murray, and a palpable exhaustion at the rush and clatter of modern life.

Groundhog Day (1993)

Director: Harold Ramis

Groundhog Day (1993)

Long-time creative partners Harold Ramis and Murray would never work together again after falling out on the set of Groundhog Day – but then it’s difficult to imagine any further pairings would have been able to top their last. The high-concept fable about a misanthropic weatherman stuck in a time loop on the worst day of his life is the pinnacle of Murray’s strictly comedic work, a kind of It’s a Wonderful Life for the 90s, in which supernatural circumstances force a man to rediscover his passion for existence. Murray, here matured as a performer, plays recognisably flawed as well as he plays the gag machine.

Rushmore (1998)

Director: Wes Anderson

Rushmore (1998)

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) would prove more of a showcase for his gifts, but in Rushmore, the first of Murray’s seven collaborations with Wes Anderson (they have an eighth on the way), we witness the beginning of a real shift. Playing a grouchy industrialist competing with a 15-year-old for the affections of a widowed schoolteacher, Murray makes a move from straight deadpannery to roles of a more serious colour, from Hollywood toward an independent scene that has since re-energised his career.

Lost in Translation (2003)

Director: Sofia Coppola

Lost in Translation (2003)

AMPAS’s notorious allergy to laughter has meant even one as accomplished as Murray has never been recognised by Oscar for his comedic work. Murray’s sole nomination instead came for a part he performed in a more sombre register, in Sofia Coppola’s dreamy Lost in Translation. Playing a fading movie star adrift in Tokyo, Murray’s sardonic wall is broken by Coppola, resulting in a performance of rare, honest naturalism. Scarlett Johansson makes terrific support as a fellow lost soul, but Murray is the tender heart of one of this century’s great screen romances.

Broken Flowers (2005)

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Broken Flowers (2005)

Following Lost in Translation, Broken Flowers finds Murray once again in crisis, with not even Jim Jarmusch’s typically cool style able to mask the bittersweet tang of a tale of a man growing old and looking back on what it all meant. In the 80s, while he was still relatively green, Murray made an abortive stab at serious material with The Razor’s Edge. Two decades later, in Broken Flowers, we find him a dramatic match for a bevy of topline female talent (including Julie Delpy, Tilda Swinton and Jessica Lange), his face marked by years of unspoken aches, shames and regrets.

Zombieland (2009)

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Zombieland (2009)

In a testament to his show-stealing power, Murray features in Ruben Fleischer’s inventive horror-comedy Zombieland all of five minutes and still manages to be the most enduringly memorable thing about it. In one of the finest cameos in recent memory, Murray plays Murray as both towering icon and ever-bumbling common man, lamenting career lows as the zombie apocalypse rages outside his LA mansion (“Any regrets?” “Garfield, maybe”). Zombieland presents us with a persona Murray has cultivated in the internet age: that of a postmodern living legend, but still an altogether relatable and human one.

The Jungle Book (2016)

Director: Jon Favreau

The Jungle Book (2016)

Murray’s excursions into animation have been mixed – a hit with Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, two big misses with a pair of Garfield movies – but Murray’s most recent animated character finds the actor at arguably his most charming. Jon Favreau’s largely CG adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book casts Murray as singing sloth bear Baloo, a part that gives Murray the chance to show off his way with a tune and reinforces the idea of late-career Murray as the laidback, avuncular megastar.

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