Are you a fan of Merchant/Ivory films? Do you like the idea of naive travelers in exotic lands? Has the existential meaning of life escaped you? If you answered yes to any of these questions this film might be up your alley. You may notice however, that I did not ask if you were a fan of Bill Murray. The reason I skipped that is simple, fans of Bill Murray’s will be disappointed in this movie and wondering where the snark is. Although he co-wrote the screenplay and does add a bit of his sensibility to the character, this is ultimately a misfire because his character is passive, introverted and disillusioned with life, which are all things that Bill Murray characters usually are not.
This is a remake of the same novel that was done by Tyrone Power in 1946. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that film but I suspect it would be a little more meaningful if the “Lost Generation” was part of your audience. A contemporary version of the story might have featured soldiers with PTSD, and their alienation from the country that they served in combat. The good times of the roaring twenties and the fall that accompanied the Great Depression set up a context that most audiences were not able to identify with in 1984.
This is the movie that Murray used “Ghostbusters” for as leverage to get it made at Columbia Pictures. Obviously it was a passion project and an opportunity to show that he was an actor and not just a comedian who made movies. Unfortunately for him the movie tanked and it would be another decade before he attempted a serious part again. More about his performance in a minute.
If you are unfamiliar with the story, let me give a brief summary. After witnessing tragedy as an ambulance driver in WW I, Larry Darrell returns to his sweetheart, alienated and searching for answers. After a brief reunion in Paris that results in the breakup of their engagement, he pursues a variety of low expectation jobs and reading. She ultimately marries his best friend and they have travails at home. Larry travels to India and back to Paris, get involved with another old friend from America, and discovers that the flames of love have no answers for him either. I don’t like to give too much away, but we are going to look at a travelogue here in a second.
The opening of the film is the essence of a “tea on the lawn” movie. The graduating class of a mid-western college is sending an ambulance to aid in the War that the U.S. has not yet joined. At the Fourth of July celebration we are introduced to the main characters. Larry is a feckless young man, expected to take a stockbrokers job at the firm of his best friend’s father. He is in love with Isabel, the niece of a rich expatiate who dotes on her. The dreams she has for their future are conventional and she is holding out on making love with him until they are married, so she does not end up like their friends Sophie and Bob. A young couple who married due to pregnancy and now struggles to keep up with their wealthier peers. Catherin Hicks plays the lovely Isabel, who is maybe a little shallow but has a very practical way of managing things. Larry and Gray, the best friend played by James Keach, are due to serve with the ambulance in France and make a contribution to the War before beginning their lives at home.
The point of the story basically is to point out the vacuous nature of being rich and blessed with intelligence and good prospects. If the opening is not enough to drive home the point, when Larry and Gray reach the front in France, they are assigned a veteran leader who looks askance at the dilettantes playing at war. What better way to show this than to have another set of college graduate volunteers from “Harvard” show up and come off as if they are slumming at the picnic that is being interrupted by war.
The old hand turns out to be right about those guys and Larry learns a lesson in dealing with grief and tragedy in a manly and philosophical way from old Piedmont, who is portrayed by Murray’s own brother Brian Doyle Murray. The routine that he goes through in trying to dismiss a loss is something that we know we will hear again from Larry down the road. In fact we will hear it a couple of times. Although his part is small, the performance by Brian Doyle-Murray is fine. The character has a lasting impact on Larry because of the events that lead to the boys returning home. At the end of the film, it turns out that Piedmont is the key character in Larry’s life after the war.
I don’t mean to diminish the trauma of war on a person. Larry is clearly influenced by what he encountered, but his ennui is influenced more by his rejection of convention than being shell shocked. It would be a stereotype except that this is the kind of novel that invented this sort of malaise. After a job packing fish and a romantic but down side night with his fiance, Larry has had it with everything that was part of his privilege. To be honest, at this point in the story, as Isabel discovers a cockroach on the pillow she just slept on with Larry and encounters a rat while waiting to use a water-closet that is nothing more than a hole in the floor, we are ready for her to grab him by the scruff of the neck and drag him back to reality. Of course that’s not what happens. Instead, she flees into the arms of his friend back at home and he continues his rootless existence.
Larry is launched to India by the most unlikely of spark plugs. He is working as a coal miner and saves the life of an older miner while they are down in the ground. The curmudgeonly fellow takes Larry home for a drink and over a game of cards, we discover that the miner is something of a philosopher. The number of books he has is similar to Larry’s own collection, but it is Larry’s ignorance of the Upanishads, that causes some derision. Clearly Larry knows nothing because he is unfamiliar with the spiritual texts of India. This launches him on a quest for enlightenment that has been parodied for as long as I can remember. A young man, seeking spiritual guidance, will climb to the high peaks of the Himalayas to discover himself. That path begins with arriving in India as the most noticeable outsider possible. In a white linen suit, he arrives on the shore of a river with his possessions thrown over his shoulder and climbs his first set of stairs. The metaphor of climbing stairs begins here in the movie, but for the rest of the time in the film, anyone seeking greater insight will be required to climb a set of stairs or a mountain to gain it. Having been started on this path by a deep thinking coal miner, Larry now gets direction and assistance from a contemplative dishwasher that he encounters off the stern of a boat. This friendly philosopher is played by Saeed Jaffery, the well known Indian actor who’s crisp English accent made him a favorite of Western film makers when shooting in India. So a second coincidental meeting results in taking one step closer to his goal.
This is an opportunity to take advantage of some spectacular vistas in India and make the movie look more beautiful and more meaningful at the same time. The climb to a mountaintop monastery is representative of Larry’s spiritual elevation along the way. The climax of the time spent in India, is a sequence that defines the word cliche’ . Having been directed to take his things with him to the top of the mountain by a monk he has studied with, he sits alone, in the cold, trying to decipher what it all comes down to. Yep, that’s Bill Murray, in monks garb, sitting on top of a mountain alone, in the snow, and trying to find nirvana. This is not a joke my friends, and that is part of the problem with the movie. It is so sincere in telling this well trod path of a story, that it fails to see some of the silliness that is inherent in the story. An actor who has used irony as a tool to create comedy in his art, fails to see the irony of his playing the part he cast himself in for this movie.
We are barely halfway through the movie however and now the scene shifts back to Paris. All the time that we have spent seeing Larry Darrell look inside himself, has been paralleled with the story of his friends back in the States. Tragedy turns Sophie into a listless and angry woman, and the Depression has caused Gray and Isabel to lose all of their wealth. She and Gray flee to Paris and the bosom of her Uncle Elliot, the always welcome Denholm Elliot. Having brought Larry and Isabel together in Paris earlier, he manages to repeat the feat by accident and a new relationship between the three schoolmates develops. The only real evidence that we have that Larry has learned anything on his journey is the moment that he magically uses a coin to take Gray out of the painful headaches he has been crippled by since the loss of his father and the wealth they had accumulated. This is actually a very effective scene, but it’s unique nature underscores the fact that it does not seem that Larry has changed all that much despite the insights that he gained in the mountains.
Up to this point Sophie has been a background character, but you may notice that Theresa Russell is second billed on the poster so her character has to be more important sooner or later. Sophie has slipped into alcoholism, drug addiction and lives in Paris by working in the world’s oldest profession. Another chance encounter turns the story in a new direction. Sophie becomes Larry’s new project. In climbing the literal stairs and staircases to his apartment, she is metaphorically moving toward enlightenment and dealing with her losses in more productive ways. Sophie and Larry begin a love affair that is a test for both of them. It is a little hard to see Bill Murray as the romantic lead, that’s why the part was played by Tyrone Power in the 1946 version. He does attempt to inject some of his natural charm into this part of the story and it is welcome but feels out of place at this juncture. There is an interlude of peace, but ultimately, tragedy will have to return, and it comes courtesy of the conventional thinking of Isabel once again. Trapped by her embrace of love as she knows it, and wisdom that stems from her mid-western roots, Isabel ends up destroying Larry’s chance at happiness. As with all the “tea on the lawn” stories, it results not from an overt action but instead, an act of emotional betrayal. It would be easy to think of Isabel as evil in this moment. The story however is designed to show us that the selfish impulse is destructive and it is endemic to conventional thinking. Isabel is a creature of her upbringing and without having cast out her values in the earlier opportunities she was given, it is inevitable that she will act in this manner.
Larry tumbles to the intrigue and confronts her but also shows how his unconventional way of thinking is better. He takes a moment to comfort an old friend in his dying moments, and then delivers his memorable payoff line. I know it is memorable because it was the one thing I recalled about the movie, the hammy and heavy way the line was delivered:
“When Piedmont died, I had to pay him back for my life. I found out there’s another debt to pay – for the privilege of being alive. I thought Sophie was my reward for trying to live a good life. Uh uh. There is no payoff – not now. ”
Larry finishes the movie with another literal and metaphorical stair climbing scene as the credits begin.
I liked the movie well enough but it is pretentious as all get out and it keeps hammering on the production values as a way of making the film feel “important”. The movie looks great and the story is worthy, even if it is a bunch of cliches. As I think has been proven by all the unsatisfactory versions of “The Great Gatsby” over the years, it is hard to replicate the emotional connection a deep book makes with the readers in the same way for a film with an audience. For most people, this will be a forgotten film, and one that no one should mourn too much for over that status.