"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, January 21, 2022

The Razor's Edge

After starring in several successful comedies in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bill Murray wanted to try something different. He wanted to flex his acting chops and do something more dramatic. He wanted to make a passion project of his, an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel The Razor’s Edge, the spiritual journey of its protagonist Larry Darrell. The book had already been adapted into a well-respected film in 1946, starring Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney. Not surprisingly, no Hollywood studio was interested in making the modestly budgeted film until Murray’s former Saturday Night Live cast member, Dan Aykroyd, cut a deal with Columbia Pictures. They would bankroll The Razor’s Edge (1984) if Murray would star in their summer blockbuster Ghostbusters (1984) alongside Aykroyd and Harold Ramis. Murray agreed and got to make his film, but the big question – would anyone want to see it was quickly answered upon its theatrical release. It received mixed to negative reviews and flopped at the box office, only making half of its $12 million budget while Ghostbusters was a massive success.
It is the early days of World War I and the United States has yet to throw their hat in the ring but gear and supplies are being donated to aid their future allies. Best friends Gray Mautrin (James Keach) and Larry Darrell (Murray) have volunteered to accompany an ambulance overseas and help the cause. When we meet Larry he’s the sarcastic wisecracker we’ve come to expect from Murray as he dabbles in bits of physical comedy, flirting with longtime sweetheart Isabel Bradley (Catherine Hicks) and close friend Sophie MacDonald (Theresa Russell) – two women that will feature prominently in his life.
There is a feeling of hopeful idealism in these scenes as we see the idyllic home he’s leaving behind for the grim, meat hook reality of the war. The tone of the film changes immediately once Gray and Larry arrive at the battlefront and meet their no-nonsense commanding officer Piedmont (Brian Doyle-Murray). They are told that their squad has been depleted and are given sidearms even though they are neutral participants in the war. Murray doesn’t say anything – no witty, snarky comments a la Stripes (1981) – just a worried expression on his face that seems to say, what the hell did I sign up for?

He says very little for most of the WWI sequences as we see Larry take everything in and get the lay of the land thanks to Piedmont’s tough love approach. He also experiences the horrifying effects, transporting the wounded and the dying from the battlefield to a nearby first aid station. Gone is the wisecracking Murray as Larry does everything he can just to survive. The actor does an excellent job of conveying the utter despair Larry feels after what he’s seen.
The war sequences are among the strongest in The Razor’s Edge, especially the last one where Larry and his squad are caught out in the battlefield and find themselves facing insurmountable odds. Larry is wounded and Piedmont is killed saving his life. After the danger has passed, Larry delivers a stirring anti-eulogy for his fallen comrade that is the one Murray gave his SNL castmate John Belushi when he died. It is a powerful and moving moment as it is something real and authentic captured on film.
Larry returns home from the war and finds himself adrift in life after being deeply affected by his experiences overseas. He spends the rest of the film finding himself by shedding his trappings of wealth, by working menial jobs and living in modest accommodations in Paris. This comes at a cost as his friends and family reject his new bohemian lifestyle, including Isabel who cannot understand why he is willing giving up his wealthy life of privilege. He tells her, “I got a second chance at life. I am not going to waste it on a big house, a new car every year and a bunch of friends who want a big house and new car every year!” She returns to the States and marries Gray while Larry continues his spiritual journey, gaining life experiences such as working in a coal mine where he meets a man that extols the virtues of India, which becomes Larry’s ultimate destination and the source of the spiritual enlightenment he seeks.

The always reliable Theresa Russell is excellent as one of Larry’s closest friends that goes on her own harrowing journey. There is a scene where a grief-stricken Sophie tearfully tells Isabel about her husband and son dying in an automobile accident that is raw as she chastises the nuns at the hospital in an understandable outpouring of grief. How does she find the will to live after such a horrible event? As a result, she numbs the pain that comes from a catastrophic loss by losing herself in alcohol and prostitution. Russell and Murray have wonderful chemistry together and her impressive dramatic chops forces him to up his game in their scenes together. The sequence where Larry gets Isabel to quit drinking and prostitution are well done as Murray uses his easy-going charm to incredible effect. This is the film at its most romantic as we see these two characters falling in love in Paris. Larry brings her back from the brink in a way that is quite moving.
One must give Murray credit, he gives the role everything he has in what was obviously a labor of love but he wasn’t a good enough actor back then to know when to tone down his comedic shtick and this results in an uneven performance. At times, he can’t quite cut loose of the broad physical comedy that made him a star, such as a scene where Larry runs from a gaggle of poor children begging for money on the streets of India. It must’ve been hard to let go of comedic tendencies that came so naturally to him. It would be years before he’d try it again and was more successful as the scary mob boss in Mad Dog and Glory (1993), but it wasn’t until he made Rushmore (1998) with Wes Anderson that he was experienced enough as an actor to modulate his performance to accommodate the tone of a given scene.
Filmmaker John Byrum met Bill Murray in New York City in 1974. The two men hit it off and wanted to work together but the opportunity wouldn’t arise until almost 10 years later. Byrum was interested in adapting W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge but assumed that 20th Century Fox, the studio that released the 1946 adaptation, still had the rights. When he approached the studio, they wouldn’t even take a meeting with him and after doing more digging found out that the rights had reverted to the Maugham estate. Unfortunately, recording industry executive Bob Marcucci had already acquired them. Byrum struck a deal – he would write the screenplay for no fee, for a 50-50 partnership and the right to direct. Marcucci agreed and in 1982, Murray joined the project after Byrum gave him a copy of the book. He wanted to make the film after reading 50 pages, drawn to the project as he was getting offered the same kind of scripts repeatedly and wanted to try something new.

Byrum asked Murray to write the script with him and the two men worked on it for a year-and-a-half. Murray suggested writing in bars and restaurants as he believed “that good things come from difficult conditions, and I thought that no matter how badly we did, at least we’d have the experience of trying to concentrate on one thing while being distracted all the time.” To this end, they went to all kinds of places in Manhattan, New Jersey and upstate, southern New York. They wrote in spas near San Francisco and even a monastery in Ladakh, India during a religious war!
Byrum and Murray approached several studios but none were interested as they felt that no one wanted to see the comedian in a serious role. Dan Aykroyd was working on a script for an ambitious comedy called Ghostbusters that was generating a lot of interest around Hollywood and Columbia Pictures made a deal to bankroll The Razor’s Edge if Murray also starred in Ghostbusters. Murray agreed and started filming the former soon after.
It was a tough shoot lasting five months. The production fell behind schedule while shooting the war sequences. As Byrum said at the time, “To set up an explosion takes time. Then the wind might shift and destroy the shot, and you have to rewire all the explosives and organize the extras.” They shot for a month in Paris and then three hard weeks in India. At one point, a crew member attempted suicide and another developed such a crippling drinking problem they had to be sent home. Many got food poisoning with Byrum himself losing 12 pounds. While all of this was going on, the studio kept asking when they would be finished as they were eager for Murray to start shooting Ghostbusters.

As soon as principal photography was finished, Murray flew to London where he saw a rough cut of the film and then got on the Concord where he flew to New York City. He got off the plane, went straight to Madison Avenue and 62nd Street, and donned his Ghostbusters outfit. “A week before I had worked with yellow-hat lamas in the Himalayas,” he remarked in an interview.
Most film critics at the time were not kind to The Razor’s Edge. Roger Ebert gave it two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, “I didn't feel that the hero's attention had been quite focused during his quest for the meaning of life. He didn't seem to be a searcher, but more of a bystander, shoulders thrown back, deadpan expression in place, waiting to see if life could make him care.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin called it, “slow, overlong and ridiculously overproduced.” The Washington Post’s Paul Attanasio wrote, “Murray's style into the '20s is jarringly bizarre. Murray puts his comedy together with riffs drawn from contemporary popular culture, in the way a modernist sculptor welds fragments found in a junkyard. Much of the humor of The Razor's Edge simply isn't intelligible within the context of the period; he's a Connecticut hipster in President Hoover's court.” Finally, in his review for the Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "If Murray's young Ghostbusters fans do go to see The Razor's Edge, they will receive a pleasant, thought-provoking surprise, a film that gently asks us to consider lifestyles other than the one into which we were born."
The Razor’s Edge is an impressively staged and beautifully shot period film directed by John Byrum (Heart Beat) and shot by Peter Hannan (Withnail and I) that gives a real sense of place. The film juxtaposes the opulent wealth of Larry’s friends back home with the physical limits he pushes himself for spiritual enlightenment. He makes an arduous journey through punishing environments, constantly pushing himself, testing his limits.

While hardly the cinematic disaster that it has been regard as over the years, it isn't that successful either. Chalk this up as a noble failure. Murray's heart was in the right place but he miscast himself in the lead role of Larry Darrell, a man who finds himself thrust from the upper crust of society to the battlefields of WWI where he is forever changed by the horrors he witnesses, motivating him to find personal enlightenment in India. Timing is everything and at the time of its release mainstream moviegoing audiences did not want to see Murray in a serious role. As a result, The Razor’s Edge tanked at the box office the same year that the crowd-pleasing Ghostbusters was a huge hit. To be fair, Murray hadn’t developed the dramatic acting chops to pull off a role like Larry Darrell. He delivers an uneven performance in an uneven film. Understandably, disappointed with its reception and disenchanted with making movies, Murray took his family to Paris and except for a cameo in Little Shop of Horrors (1986), didn’t act for four years.

Crouse, Timothy. “Bill Murray: The Rolling Stone Interview.” Rolling Stone. August 16, 1984.
Pollock, Dale. “Bill Murray on The Razor’s Edge After Ghostbusters.” The Victoria Advocate. October 29, 1984.
Weinstein, Wendy. “John Byrum Traverses The Razor’s Edge.” The Film Journal. September 1984.