1. Get Low is based on a true story, but not really. In 1938, a man named Felix Bush, a hermit from Tennessee, decided to have a “living funeral” in which he invited thousands of townspeople — who had whispered for years about the mysterious hillperson just over yonder way — to come tell him all the stories they’d gossiped about for years. (He enticed them with a lottery to win his plot of land once he died.) This is a strange thing to do, I suppose, but mostly it just seems self-indulgent: It’s not too far from that guy a few years ago who staged his own death just to see who would show up to mourn him. (The answer: Just his mom.) It’s a curious story, as far as these matters go, but it’s not a compelling premise for a movie. So Get Low gives Felix a tragic backstory, a raggedy beard, dollops of manufactured Southern “charm” and casts Robert Duvall to play him. The film takes the perpetual twinkle in Duvall’s eye — the “I’m gruff, but deep down I’m your best friend and you would love me though I’ll never admit it” — and sprinkles it all over. This is a movie about twinkle.
2. That is to say: There’s not a moment when Get Low ever feels interested in anything other than its own cuteness. This movie really, really wants to make you happy and is willing to point its characters in whatever direction it needs to achieve that end. Felix has been away from society for 40 years out of self-punishment for the hidden tragedy he carries with him, but apparently the 40 years haven’t done much more than given him a beard, improved his woodworking skills and endowed him with impressive one-liner skills. (This is the type of movie that makes Felix’s best friend a mule and finds it endearing rather than, you know, insane.) In case you had any doubt about the movie’s intentions, the twangy, isn’t-everything-so-darling? soundtrack constantly clues you in. We’re in the land of the overly precious.
3. The movie also has no real sense of the community that Felix is supposedly an outcast from. Get Low takes place in rural, Depression-era Tennessee, but no one here is particularly downtrodden or forlorn. For the likes of me, I can’t remember a single townsperson other than the main characters who exist mostly as reaction shots to Felix’s eccentricities. As if that weren’t enough, we even get Lucas Black as Buddy Audience Proxy, a dull man played dully, a Decent Fellow who hangs around because Get Low needs someone else in the room when Robert Duvall is talking to Bill Murray. (Why, I ask.) This movie doesn’t need to be a period piece; it has no sense of place, time or atmosphere. If you were to switch this to modern day, or 15 years in the future, or in Studio 54-era New York City — it’s easy to see: Wild-eyed Old Man Auctions Off Rent Controlled Apartment — you wouldn’t have to alter anything but the set dressing.
4. The film, not surprisingly, fosters some genuine goodwill from the casting. Duvall might be pulling out some stock schtick — burly man’s man with a pure heart — but it’s solid schtick nevertheless. He remains as compelling to watch as ever, even if this is to great Duvall performances as Scent of a Woman is to great Al Pacino performances. Murray is always a pleasure to watch, even if he doesn’t have anybody to play; he has just enough dry pain in his eyes to make you think he wrote a private backstory for his character once he realized the filmmakers weren’t going to bother to give him one. And Sissy Spacek has a few warm scenes as the thwarted 40-years-ago love interest, though she’s primarily here to provide mythic narrative about how Felix, back in the day, was a normal functioning member of society, with “depths I’d never seen before in a man.” I’ll take your word on it, Ms. Spacek.
5. This all culminates in the big funeral scene, ostensibly the reason the movie exists, and it shouldn’t come as much of a shock that the central premise is abandoned. Rather than a “living funeral,” it’s more just an excuse for Duvall, in extreme closeup, to give his Oscar speech. Felix tells us his tortured secret, the reason he spent 40 years in isolation, and it’s indicative of the movie’s timidity that the secret isn’t all that horrible after all. (Part of me kinda wished he’d murdered a family of four; surprise, everybody! Not so charming now!) Duvall’s riveting in the scene, but it’s more Acting! than it is a satisfying conclusion to the story. Tellingly, none of the townspeople — who were invited there to tell stories about Felix, after all — ever speak at all. This is a film about a man who doesn’t speak to the world for 40 years, and once it comes time, the movie won’t let him, or itself, shut up.