Some actors are worth watching no matter how slack a screenplay may be. Get Low has two such screen saviors doing what they always do — which is singular and special — in a movie that seldom matches them.
If you want a cantankerous old coot gone soft under his flinty surface, no actor can do it better than Robert Duvall. Any time a role calls for a deadpan shyster cutting to the quick of a situation with sarcastic darts, the go-to guy is Bill Murray. It's a pairing that only happens in contrivances like Get Low, yet they're so fine together that you barely notice the pat nature of the story.
Duvall plays Felix Bush, a backwoods hermit in the 1930s with a bad reputation built on how little folks know about him. Felix could be a cousin to Duvall's debut role as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, a recluse who is feared because absence allows people to make up rural legends about him. Some say he killed a man; others say it was several men. We can guess the truth has something to do with the house fire Felix escapes from in a flashback before the opening credits.
Forty years later, the death of another old-timer gets Felix thinking about his own mortality. What will people say about him at his funeral? The only way he'll know is by being there alive when the ceremony happens. Felix knows it's time to "get low," 6 feet under in fact, but like everything else it must be on his terms.
Undertaker Frank Quinn (Murray) never arranged a funeral for someone still living. The size of Felix's grubby ball of hoarded cash makes him willing to try. Murray's line readings and cynical manner feel out of step with the era and setting that Get Low describes, but the character works because of Murray's sublime reactions to a world he doesn't seem part of. Felix and Frank never met anyone like the other, and their scenes together are gems of cross-cultural comedy.
It's when director Aaron Schneider looks elsewhere for plot that Get Low occasionally stumbles. Felix hints that he'll use the funeral as a platform for apologizing to someone for something he won't reveal until then. The mystery isn't mysterious after that opening inferno and a couple of meetings with Felix's former girlfriend Mattie (Sissy Spacek, basking in a reunion with her Tender Mercies co-star).
There isn't any reason for a scene of Frank making romantic overtures to Mattie since the subject never comes up again. Frank's assistant at the funeral home (Lucas Black) offers contrast to the older, wiser characters and Felix takes a shine to the young man. Felix's murky past gets clearer with the introduction of his old friend, an Illinois preacher (Bill Cobbs) who knows the truth and dislikes how Felix has avoided it.
Get Low is a pleasant yarn, well-acted and dutifully mounted with period designs. There isn't a false note among the actors. But the realization as it proceeds is that without two sturdy character actors like Duvall and Murray handling the reins, we could resist it as stubbornly as Felix's old mule.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.