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Time Out New York Project: Issue #774, July 29–August 4, 2010
Dir. Aaron Schneider. 2009. PG-13. 100mins. Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Lucas Black.
Here's the true story: In 1938, Tennessee hermit Felix “Bush” Breazeale threw himself a living funeral party. The event attracted hordes of press and “mourners” (estimates of the crowd size were between eight and twelve thousand people) and made the man at the center of it all a minicelebrity. Felix gave no concrete explanation for why he did it, and the mystery only deepened the affair.
In director Aaron Schneider's frustratingly sappy retelling of this American tale, Felix (Duvall) is given a crystal-clear motive for his actions. And though it’s not initially revealed, the striking opening shot of a burning house at night (and an aflame silhouette bursting out of it) gives us a pretty good idea of the sad story the character will come to confess in his tearful climactic speech. We’re just waiting impatiently for confirmation.
Until that point, a bunch of terrific actors — among them, Sissy Spacek as Felix’s old flame, Bill Murray as a dryly funny funeral-home director, Lucas Black as his loyal assistant — wander around in period dress prepping for Duvall’s Oscar clip. He might as well clear some space on the mantelpiece now. This is the kind of autumnal sentimentality that the Academy goes wild for — a (rightly) venerated performer acknowledging his own mortality by pandering to cheap-seat emotions. Duvall is sleepwalking here, displaying none of the unsettling and deep-rooted vitality he brought to such recent films as We Own the Night and The Road. He’s forcing himself through an elegy when he’s got a lot more living to do.—Keith Uhlich