Bill Murray is the ultimate example of an actor who somehow manages to consistently exist separate from the story and even himself, operating within and outside of his own jaded, snarky, searching persona. Always at the exterior of the action of his stories, nose smooshed against the window alongside his audience, staring bemusedly at, and eventually hilariously commenting upon, the world that we, as viewers, watch him watching. He is of that particular existence, but not one with it -- our avatar, in essence, an existential, undercover operative looking for a way out of, and a path into, humanity's lonely, comedic heart.
For the first forty or so minutes of his 1984 drama The Razor's Edge (based on Somerset Maugham's novel), his very presence, usually a delight, instead seemed a distraction. The story of a young man psychically scarred by his experiences in World War I, unable to alleviate such anxiety in the upper class American milieu that raised him and expects much of him that he is not willing to relaese, Murray seems almost too modern, too Murray, to be believable. He searches for his very self amidst poverty in France, coal mining in England, amongst monks in India, and throughout I thought: Murray sticks out. He is not at one with this cast and these sets.
Blockhead that I am, it was only an hour into the picture that I instantly realized what should have suspected from the opening credits -- that this dislocation completely and utterly appropriate. Even necessary. The Bill Murray that we know so well from SNL and all his comedic films most certainly does not belong in the hoity-toity, upper-class world that awaits him on all sides in this film. His persona bobs and weaves through Europe and Asia like a boat adrift, and rightly so; to contain Bill Murray is to cage Bill Murray.
As a child, I avoided this film; its sombre art on the front of the video box hinted at a melancholy within Bill Murray that I did not want to admit was what had remained so intruging about him all along, in Meatballs and Caddyshack, Stripes and Ghostbusters. Murray as a monk? I wouldn't have clued in, not at ten, or twelve, or possibly even twenty. Having bobbed back and forth a bit in the years since (and having even taught monks myself), I can now understand what understated wit and wisdom Murray brings to his portrayal of a man lost in his own sea. There is still something awkward about Murray's prescence in this picture -- a crooked piece that does not fit into the larger puzzle. He shouldn't be here, not in Europe, not in the 1920's, not when Ghostbusters had been released only months before to international, boffo box-office. Which is exactly the point. Indeed, after The Razor's Edge bombed, Murray himself took a self-imposed limbo of his own, hanging out in France, exiting the movie industry altogether for four years. To some extent, this film reminded him of where he was not supposed to be.
Perhaps you are not where you are supposed to be, either; nor, perhaps, am I where I should finally belong. The film speaks to those feelings, while Murray sticks to the sidelines of his own starring role, allowing our own glee at his calm, sardonic wit to balance us ever so delicately upon the razor's edge of the gloomier, deeper themes that the film so carefuly speaks to so elegantly.