Sam Strange Remembers: GET LOW

Sam Strange recalls that time he got Bill Murray and Robert Altman to star in a movie about a selfish old man.

It’s tricky talking to an old person. You can never be 100% sure whether you’re getting hard-earned wisdom or the pathetic ramblings of an attention starved idiot. Age automatically grants such dignity that we often forget a twerp-dork is always a twerp-dork no matter how dusty their balls. About the only way to be sure is if the old dude is black. Black people never have been and never will be twerp-dorks. But how many movie fans talk to old black people? Me and Michael Rappapport, that’s probably it.

This is especially true in cinema where third-act advice almost always comes from those who can back it with sorry experience. That’s fine, but films should be at least a little educational, and this precedent sets up a dangerous status quo for our youth. Sometimes you need to ignore old people. Sometimes old people are stupid. Your grandpa thought the world was flat and probably fucked a horse. I know mine did.

Get Low is all about Felix Bush, an old man whose fake grandpa wisdom convinces nearly everyone around him that he’s smart when he’s in fact just sad and particularly dumb. To accentuate this auto-wisdom I had him played by one of cinema’s most dependable old sages, Robert Altman.

Felix is an old school Hermit. He lives in a shack alone with his mule. He rolls his own cigarettes, grows his own tobacco, and even pulps his own zigzags. His command of the English language has deteriorated to that point where many common words have been replaced with the grunts and hoo-has and Lordys we’ve come to expect from super-smart old people. His hair is long, unwashed, and teeming with fleas, the universally recognized look for wise old people based on the fact that it’s what Jesus would have looked like if the Jews hadn’t killed him.

No one has seen Felix in forty years. Having no backstory to go on, people in town have turned him into a scary legend. Kids dare each other to throw rocks through his windows. Sometimes he shoots the kids, sometimes he misses. Police don’t look into it because he’s grandfathered into a license to kill.

A pastor arrives one day to tell Felix that one of his friends from forty years ago died. Felix doesn’t care about his dead friend much, but the news sure makes him think about himself a lot. It begins to dawn on him that he, too, will die soon and no one even knows him. Know one knows his incredible fishing stories or his really good Chester A. Arthur impression. Felix decides it’s time to finally share himself with the world by staging a living funeral.

People in town, of course, think he’s crazy. No one listens to old people unless their in deep shit. That’s part why their advice is so valuable. Felix is especially strange because the world has really left him behind after forty years. In an age of automobiles, people are shocked by his mule and carriage set up. He still carries a shotgun around. Instead of a credit card and smart phone, Felix does his business with a wad of greasy cash and a pager.

He finds luck, however, when he visits the town’s undertaker. Played by Bill Murray, this character is a bit of a charlatan with a heart of gold. He’s undeniably a salesman but not really a bad guy. That’s important because he’s well on his way to being an old guy himself, and we need to know that some old dudes are still okay. Due to slow business, Bill Murray cannot deny the allure of Felix’s cash wad. He agrees to put on the guy’s selfish funeral, hoping that, if nothing else, he’ll at least gleam some life lessons off it.

Helping Bill Murray is Lucas Black. WIth his strong morals and classic American face, Black is clearly a future old guy. By witnessing Felix’s example, Lucas Black, along with the audience, gains a rare opportunity to see exactly how NOT to be old.

Felix’s main problem in giving his own funeral is attendance. At first, his hook is that people can come only if they have a story to tell about him. Felix plans to just sit there while everyone inflates his ego with the legends that have grown in his absence. The problem with this is, his legend is incredibly vague. There’s talk about how he killed someone, but no one has any details. On top of that, these people work for a living and who gives a shit?

So Felix decides to bribe them instead. People who RSVP can fill out a raffle ticket for a chance to win Felix’s farm after he fake dies. The response is large, but it leads to two problems. One, will they actually show up? Two, if no one’s gonna tell stories about Felix, what’s the point?

To solve this problem, Felix reaches out to his two living friends. One is an old girlfriend played by Sissy Spacek’s skull. Aside from missing forty years of each other’s life, their relationship is strained because Felix used to date Sissy, but traded up to her sister, Bubba Spacek. Still, he charms her over dinner and she agrees to talk at his funeral.

Next, he has Lucas Black drive him to Illinois to talk to an old friend played by Bill Cobsy. Here we have an old black preacher, the real deal against which we can see Felix for what he truly is. If that’s not enough to convince you, he also tells Felix that his plan is selfish and dumb. “Don’t you see how uncomfortable it’ll make people to attend a funeral for some dude sittin there? Hell, them folk don’t even know who you are! You didn’t used to be this stupid, Felix.” In response, Felix chews on the inside of his mouth while trying not to cry.

Finally, a bit of light shines on Felix’s brain, and he considers canceling the funeral. Bill Cobsy’s actual sage advice is not just for young people, it turns out. But just then, Bill Murray drives to Illinois to talk Bill Cobsy into reconsidering. He has the one and only weapon effective on old people: A younger person’s misguided faith in an elderly person’s hair-brain scheme. It touches Bill Cobsy’s heart, and he finally relents.

So the day of Felix’s funeral arrives. About twenty people show up, none of them quite sure what they’re doing there. Felix takes the stage with Bill Cobsy and Sissy Spacek’s skull. He’s overwhelmed with emotion, but having them there gives him the strength needed to negate their being there. Finally, after all these years of silent seclusion, Felix is going to tell everyone his story, the reason for his self inflicted solitude. After a couple shots of whiskey, he begins.

It turns out that forty years ago, Felix was deeply in love with Bubba Spacek. But she was married to some other dude. Together, they hatched a plan to escape forever. But on the eve of their emancipation, her husband found out and killed her. Felix tried to save her dead body, but the mean husband burned the house down around them. In attempt to not die, a burning Felix jumped out of the house. He’s been paying for his selfishness ever since.

Most people in the audience are still talking to each other during his speech, so few hear it. Those who do have a difficult time understanding why they should give a shit. Those who actually give a shit are ashamed that they ever gave a shit in the first place. They all agree: it’s one thing to feel bad about killing the girl you love, but carrying forty years of guilt because someone else killed her is just overly righteous self-flagellation. That’s what they get for not vetting their old dude.

Some family wins Felix’s house and everyone else leaves, grumbling about how they just wasted a Saturday afternoon. Felix gets ready to face tomorrow, but finds he cannot move. The Grim Reaper appears, shaking his head in bemused disappointment. Apparently, a funeral is a funeral, fake or not.

The real winner is Bill Murray because he was paid in advance for what’d he’d normally have to do out of pocket. Always bet Team Murray.

(three stars)