Total Recall

Total Recall: Bill Murray's Best Movies

We count down the comedian's 15 best-reviewed films.

by | October 8, 2008 | Comments

He got his start on Saturday Night Live and made his big-screen bones on a succession of comedies that traded heavily on his easygoing, wisecracking charm — then kicked off the second phase of his film career by sublimating all that charm in a series of roles that took a less-is-more approach to exploring his dramatic side, and earned the best reviews of his career in the process. Most actors wouldn’t be able to pull off that kind of transition (see: Carrey, Jim), but then, most actors aren’t blessed with equal chops on either side of the funny line. Bill Murray, on the other hand, owns that line — and with his latest film, City of Ember, opening today, we here at RT thought there was no better time to take a look back at some of his best performances. After all, you never know when he’s going to take another prolonged break from filmmaking, right? Get ready to laugh, cry, and pretend Garfield never existed.

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Tomatometer: 71%
Ah, the summer camp movie. It’s a genre that’s long since been bled dry — and
it’s always provoked a gag reflex in critics — but once upon a time, comedies
about sex-starved teenagers running wild at camp were all the rage, and 1979’s
Meatballs was one of the first (and, not coincidentally, best). While
it certainly isn’t Murray’s finest 90 minutes, it does have plenty of solid
humor and light charm to go with all the hormonal antics, and it offers an
interesting early glimpse at the development of Murray, screenwriter Harold
Ramis, and director Ivan Reitman. (If you haven’t seen it in awhile, Meatballs
is especially fascinating as an example of what passed for raunchy in 1979.)
Although the franchise went on to suffer grevious misuse — Meatballs II
featured an alien, Meatballs III is something Patrick Dempsey would
probably dearly love to forget, and the fourth installment starred Corey
Feldman and was released direct to DVD — the original is, as Dennis Schwartz
of Ozus’ World Movie Reviews put it, “As easy to handle as drinking lemonade
under a shady tree.”



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Mad Dog and Glory

Tomatometer: 72%One of Murray’s more unusual (and lesser-seen) roles came in this
love story/dramedy hybrid, which found both Murray and Robert De Niro playing
against type: Murray as a Mob boss (and aspiring stand-up comedian), and De
Niro as the meek, bottled-up police detective who saves his life and “earns”
the temporary, uh, use of a prostitute named Glory (played by Uma Thurman). As
you might imagine, Mad Dog and Glory had a bit of a balancing act to
pull off, and according to most critics, it wasn’t always successful. Although
many writers expressed pleasant surprise at the suddenly commercial turn from
director Richard McNaughton (then best known for his work on Henry:
Portrait of a Serial Killer
), and praised the typically sharp dialogue in
Richard Price’s script, ultimately, most critics felt that Mad Dog‘s
many shifts in style and tone were too much to completely overcome. Still, its
stars earned high marks for their out-of-character performances; Time Out’s
Derek Adams, for one, noted that “De Niro seems committed to the part of the
sensitive loner, while Murray all but succeeds in mixing smooth and sinister,
heartfelt and hot-tempered.”



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Tomatometer: 76%There are probably more eminently quotable movies from the early
’80s, but not many, and none of them boast the iconic performance of Bill
Murray as the mumbling, borderline psychotic groundskeeper/groundhog battler
Carl Spackler. Despite being only one member of a very funny ensemble cast
that includes Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, and Ted Knight, Murray
essentially walked away with the movie, thanks in part to an oft-quoted (and
totally improvised) monologue involving the Dalai Lama and the immortal phrase
“So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.” Thanks to a hilarious script and
an impressive run at the box office, Caddyshack went on to become one
of the most influential films of the ’80s, at least in terms of inspiring
scores of similarly raunchy (but unfailingly inferior) teen comedies, but
critics mostly turned up their noses at the time — and although the film’s
stature has grown in the last 28 years, their slowly building respect is still
expressed grudgingly: DVDTown’s John J. Puccio spoke for many of his peers
when he said it has “very few saving graces,” but admitted that he harbors “a
guilty pleasure in watching it, at least in bits and pieces.”

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The Royal


Tomatometer: 80%What, you thought Rushmore was quirky? Sucker. With his next
movie, Wes Anderson proved that was just a warm-up act: The Royal
takes offbeat character studies to a whole new level, making
the Coen brothers seem like staid conformists in comparison. Here, Anderson
takes an unwieldy cast — including Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben
Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danny Glover, Luke and Owen Wilson, and, of course,
Bill Murray — and wrangles them into a suitably convoluted plot involving the
scheming patriarch of the oddball Tenenbaum clan. As cuckolded neurologist
Raleigh St. Clair, Murray doesn’t carry a great deal of the film’s weight on
his shoulders, but one could argue that his typically subtle performance
(summed up beautifully in the scene where he learns of his wife’s various
marital transgressions) helps anchor a movie constantly in danger of floating
right off the rails. It wasn’t a huge hit at the box office, but like Rushmore,
it enjoyed largely positive reviews and has continued to build a following on
the home market. Although critics had their issues with Tenenbaums,
most of them agreed with the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, who said
“Whatever my qualms, it’s still one of the funniest comedies around.”



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What About Bob?


Tomatometer: 81%Bill Murray has always excelled at playing unflappable slackers,
while nobody can handle the role of an uptight fussbudget with quite the
aplomb of Richard Dreyfuss — which meant that pitting them against each other
in 1991’s What About Bob? was virtually a guarantee of critical and
commercial success. Fortunately for fans of progressively over-the-top comedy,
the movie basically delivered on that guarantee — although it’s perhaps not
as consistently hilarious as some of Murray’s truly classic comedies, it went
down as easily one of the funniest films of the year. What About Bob?
boasts some of Frank Oz’s lightest direction, which is truly saying something,
but it makes sense; all he had to do, really, was let the cameras — and
Murray and Dreyfuss — run with their characters. Murray’s Bob is a
well-meaning soul whose many phobias prevents him from living a normal life —
or from allowing his psychiatrist to take the vacation he’s been craving. As
that psychiatrist, Dreyfuss is at his sputtering, bug-eyed best, and together,
the duo transcends what was by then already a very tired plot (and, it must be
said, a patently ridiculous final act). What it boils down to is a very funny
film — one, in the words of FulvueDrive-in’s Chuck O’Leary, “made even more
amusing by the fact that Murray and Dreyfuss couldn’t stand each other in real



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Quick Change

Tomatometer: 84%Bill Murray as a burned-out bureaucrat who disguises himself as a
clown to lead a motley crew on a bank robbery — only to find his escape
blocked by a seemingly endless series of mishaps delivered by the gridlock and
innumerable misfits of New York City. Even now, Quick Change‘s synopsis
sounds like a surefire recipe for box office success, but in spite of mostly
positive reviews, Murray’s (co-)directorial debut went down as one of 1990’s
highest-profile flops, grossing less than $16 million during its theatrical
run. It isn’t a particularly ambitious film (Steve Crum of Dispatch-Tribune
Newspapers summed it up as “funny fluff”), and most critics agreed that it
doesn’t boast one of Murray’s finest performances, but Quick Change has
held up well thanks to a stellar supporting cast that the filmmakers had the
good sense to highlight, including Jason Robards, Phil Hartman, Stanley Tucci,
and Tony Shalhoub (the latter two would go on to star together in the
critically acclaimed, and equally box office-starved, Big Night).
Murray stepped behind the camera for Quick Change after he and
screenwriter Howard Franklin, who worked from Jay Cronley’s book, decided they
were too close to the material to hand it over to anyone else — but it would
seem that what Murray really wants to do is not direct: this remains
his sole directorial credit.

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Tomatometer: 86%The second act of Murray’s career, in which he pivots from playing
sleepy-eyed shysters into more finely nuanced dramatic roles, starts with this
film, which broke director Wes Anderson through to a larger audience,
essentially redefined the quirky high school movie for a new generation and
reaped scores of awards and nominations for its trouble. Though it was never
anything close to a box office hit — its gross stalled at just over $17
million, below its $20 million budget — Rushmore has grown into a
certified cult classic. The movie rests on Schwartzman’s shoulders, and a good
deal of the critical acclaim rightly centered on his turn as the troubled Max
Fischer — but for a not-inconsiderable number of critics, Murray’s
performance as the dissatisfied executive who befriends, then spars with
Schwartzman was a revelation. While lauding Schwartzman as “the best underdog
since Cusack in Better Off Dead,” eFilmCritic’s Brian McKay saved his
highest praise for Murray, deeming this “the finest, funniest, and most
deadpan performance of his career.”



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Broken Flowers

Tomatometer: 86%By this point, Murray was becoming just as famous for his
hard-to-decipher real-life antics as he was for anything he did on screen —
at least partly because anyone who wanted to hire him had no agent or manager
to go through, and was forced to deal directly with Murray, supposedly through
an oft-neglected personal voicemail box. True to form, for Broken Flowers
— and a part which director Jim Jarmusch said he wrote more or less
specifically for his star — Murray agreed to sign on only if he could stay
within 60 miles of his home. Ironically, Flowers is a movie about
traveling — Murray’s character visits former flames in an effort to determine
which one sent him an anonymous letter informing him of the nearly 20-year-old
product of their relationship. As much as his character spent the film in
motion, Murray kept his performance close to home, delivering a quiet,
minimalistic turn not terribly dissimilar from his work in Lost in
. The similarity was noted by more than one critic, and
although Flowers didn’t attract the same sort of attention as Translation,
but most scribes agreed with Sight and Sound’s Liese Spencer, who noted,
“After a career of deadpanning, Murray’s impassive performance is still fresh,
funny, sympathetic and restrained.”



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Tomatometer: 87%It’s got Stephen Bishop on the soundtrack and it takes place during
an era in which soap opera stars had a somewhat realistic chance of appearing
on the cover of mainstream publications — but despite these anachronisms, Tootsie
remains largely as fresh and funny as it was in 1982. And although it would be
at best misguided to give Bill Murray a large portion of the credit for this,
his scene-stealing, unbilled turn as Dustin Hoffman’s playwright roommate did
give a terrific early indication of Murray’s willingness — eagerness, even —
to take on smaller roles in the right projects. It’s easy to see why Murray
might have wanted to show up and film a few days of Tootsie, too: with
Dustin Hoffman in the lead, Sydney Pollack behind the cameras, and a script
whose writers included Barry Levinson and Elaine May, it was a pretty sweet
gig whether or not your name ended up above the title. As an added bonus, the
movie’s examination of gender roles fit perfectly with the times, helping
propel Tootsie to nearly $175 million in receipts and plenty of glowing
reviews from critics like Emanuel Levy, who called it “one of the best and
most significant comedies of the 1980s.”

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Tomatometer: 88%Anyone who’s ever struggled to get a film off the ground will read
this and weep: Ivan Reitman dreamed up the premise for Stripes — “Cheech
and Chong in the Army” — on the way to the premiere for Meatballs,
after which he pitched his idea to Paramount, where it was instantly greenlit.
Of course, it wasn’t all peaches and cream for Stripes — Cheech and
Chong bailed after being denied complete creative control — but once Bill
Murray and Harold Ramis were subbed in for the cheeba-loving duo (whose
personae were ultimately boiled down into Judge Reinhold’s character, Elmo),
the studio had an entirely different, but still quite profitable, movie on its
hands. As John Winger, the slacker who joins the Army to get fit and meet
chicks, Murray was essentially playing a finely tweaked version of his public
persona, and the script (by Ramis, Len Blum, and Daniel Goldberg) was filled
with zippy one-liners; as a result, although Stripes isn’t what you’d
call a filmmaking achievement, it’s classic early Murray, and it’s nothing but
entertaining. Roger Ebert agreed, calling it “a celebration of all that is
irreverent, reckless, foolhardy, undisciplined, and occasionally scatological”
— and “a lot of fun.”



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Little Shop of Horrors

Tomatometer: 91%We like to think that turning movies into musicals — and then back
into movies — is a new trend, borne of the ever-dwindling capital in
Hollywood’s creative reserves, but Frank Oz’s 1986 cult classic followed the
same path as the recent big-screen revivals of The Producers and Hairspray.
Oz adapted the off-Broadway version of the story, as written by Alan Menken
and Howard Ashman, which was in turn inspired by the (low-budget, natch) 1960
Roger Corman film of the same name. Fittingly for a film that predated the
wave of screen-to-stage-to-screen projects, Little Shop of Horrors was
a movie ahead of its time: It arrived during a period when musicals were in
such short supply that moviegoers seemed not to know what to do with one, and
despite a funny, colorful ad campaign in support of the funny, colorful movie,
Little Shop ended up not doing much more than making back its budget.
Those who saw it, however, latched onto its inspired bits — including Bill
Murray’s turn as the masochistic patient of Steve Martin’s sadistic dentist —
and it’s gone on to build quite the devoted following in the two decades-plus
since its release. As TIME Magazine’s Richard Corliss noted upon its release,
Little Shop “sneaks up on you, about as subtly as Aubrey II.”



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Ed Wood

Tomatometer: 91%It’s a biopic about one of the least talented filmmakers in history,
it was scripted by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the duo behind the Problem
movies, and director Michael Lehmann (Hudson Hawk) was
originally attached to direct. Yes, things could have turned out very
differently for Ed Wood, but when Tim Burton walked away from Mary
and took an interest in directing Alexander and Karaszewski’s
script, the project took another turn. (Lehmann, undaunted, went on to direct
Airheads.) The final product represented a departure for many of the
parties involved: Burton scaled back his signature visual style, filming in
black and white and letting the story do the talking, and much of the cast —
Sarah Jessica Parker, for example — found itself in uncharted territory.
Appearing as Bunny Breckinridge, the flamboyant star of Plan 9 from Outer
, Murray continued the string of smaller, occasionally offbeat roles
he’d occasionally sought out since taking a break from acting following the
failure of The Razor’s Edge in 1984. It also presaged a period in which
Murray would begin choosing scripts seemingly at random, but in Ed Wood
he picked a project that, in the words of Time Out’s Geoff Andrew, “certainly
succeeds as a funny, touching tribute to tenacity, energy, ambition and

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Tomatometer: 93%No film makes it to the screen as it’s originally envisioned by its
writers, but Ghostbusters took a particularly circuitous journey:
Originally, Dan Aykroyd planned to assemble it as a project for himself and
John Belushi, with all sorts of big-budget shenanigans, and supporting roles
for Eddie Murphy and John Candy. It was only after a ground-up rewrite by
Aykroyd and Harold Ramis that Ghostbusters became the box office
behemoth it was destined to be, racking up an an astounding $238 million tally
throughout 1984 and 1985. Though it’s very much an ensemble comedy, many of
the film’s best lines are stolen by Murray, perhaps helping create the legend
that he didn’t really read the script, and improvised most of what his
character said onscreen. This story is probably apocryphal, but no matter who
put the words in his mouth, Murray’s deadpan delivery was perfect for the
role, and cemented his status as the thinking man’s preeminent smart-aleck of
the ’80s; it also helped sway begrudging critics like the Chicago Reader’s
Dave Kehr, who summed up Ghostbusters as “not at all a bad time, thanks
mainly to…Murray’s incredibly dry line readings.”



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Lost in

Tomatometer: 95%Thanks to her much-derided appearance in The Godfather III,
Sofia Coppola was still the butt of many film fans’ jokes when she helmed Lost
in Translation
— but all that changed once the glowing reviews started
pouring in, capped off with her Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
But Coppola wasn’t the only one who earned praise for this quiet little
picture; Murray received some of the best reviews of his career (not to
mention a Golden Globe and a BAFTA Award) for his softly melancholic portrayal
of a movie star whose crushing ennui has set him adrift in a sea of
unfulfilling relationships and paycheck projects. He’s oh-so-gently jolted
from his reverie by a fellow unhappy traveler played by Scarlett Johansson —
and who can blame him? — but that’s pretty much all that happens here,
something pointed out by the handful of critics who gave Lost in
unfavorable ratings. For the 95 percent of critics who loved
it, though, Translation was something special; Variety’s David Rooney
spoke for many when he said its “balance of humor and poignancy makes it both
a pleasurable and melancholy experience.”



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Groundhog Day

Tomatometer: 96%For a modest little comedy that failed to break $100 million at the
box office during its theatrical run, Groundhog Day has done pretty
well for itself in the 15 years since its release: It’s been added to the
United States Film Registry, ranked in the top 40 of the AFI and Bravo “100
Funniest Movies” lists, the top 10 of AFI’s fantasy list, and lauded by Roger
Ebert in his “Great Movies” series. The film catches Murray in transition,
navigating between the arch, manic style of his earlier films and the more
minimalistic, restrained humor of later projects — and he’s aided capably by
a smartly funny script from Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, the latter of whom
provides some of his best, lightest direction here. Much like the day Murray’s
misanthropic newscaster is forced to relive in the movie, Groundhog Day
benefits from repeated viewings, and this is largely due to Murray’s deft
performance; in the words of TIME’s Richard Corliss, he “makes the movie a
comic time warp that anyone should be happy to get stuck in.”


Want more actor Tomatometer rundowns? Check out the Total Recalls for Paul Newman, Adam Sandler, and Jet Li,
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