I spent a few years in Knoxville, Tennessee, and I love Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek, so I was eager to see Get Low in spite of a trailer that looked sappy and sanctimonious. Duvall plays Felix, an old coot who’s been holed up in a log cabin in East Tennessee for decades. He’s nursing a secret that half the people in the county, including his old girlfriend (Spacek), would love to hear. The twist is that Felix is planning his own funeral, which he wants to host while he’s alive so he can hear the stories people have been making up about him. That’s something I’d pay to see, though I didn’t have to thanks to a press screening last night (it opens in two weeks).
Get Low wanders off and gets temporarily lost in a couple dead ends (is Felix really near death or not? What are his plans for that casket full of cash that he makes the funeral director keep for him?), but the story I just laid out, which you get from the trailer, is basically the whole movie. And it would have been plenty, if only I could have believed that these people would have behaved in that way.
Movies like this are all about authenticity. When they work, it’s because they give you a guided tour of a closed world you’ll probably never visit in life—and would never be allowed into even if you did. Mind you, I’m not claiming to be an expert on Tennessee’s hill country just because I lived in its capital city for a few years: I came there a stranger and I left the same way. I’m just saying Get Low didn’t ring true to me the way, say, Coal Miner’s Daughter or Winter’s Bone did. This one is based on a true story: The real Felix “Bush” Breazeale used a raffle to draw thousands of people to the “living funeral” he hosted for himself in 1938. But there are plenty of bad dogs with good pedigrees, and in the end, Get Low just feels like so much playacting.
Very high quality playacting, to be sure. Duvall’s portrait of a lonely man looking down the barrel of his own death is good enough that I’m not sorry I saw the movie. Spacek brings her usual naturalistic dignity and intelligence to Mattie, Felix’s aging “girl,” an elderly belle with a tender heart. Nobody’s better than these two pros at portraying country people truthfully and without condescension, and watching them play off each other here made me wish they’d been paired on screen before—and in a better movie. Lucas Black, who was so good in Friday Night Lights, feels just as solid here as the funeral director’s earnest young assistant, though he’s not given much to do other than grip a scene-stealing baby and look responsibly concerned.
But not doing much is better than doing something silly, and the script asks the generally fine cast to do some pretty ridiculous things. It was bad enough when everyone in town fell silent and stared as Felix rode in on his mule-drawn carriage. It was even worse when a bully started to taunt him and throw stones at him and his mule, which reared up and nearly bolted. I never believed for a moment that these townspeople would stone Felix, no matter how much they might gossip behind his back: These are Tennesseans, for God’s sake, not Taliban. The tension between Felix and the preacher who delivers his eulogy feels manufactured too, and making the preacher African-American felt like another falsehood, since I find it hard to believe that a Depression-era white man’s favorite preacher would be black.
Every now and then there’s a little bit of business that feels real, like when a preacher tells Felix: “My mother used to say that gossip is the Devil’s radio,” or when Felix’s mule sits back on its haunches, its front hooves planted on the ground and front legs straight, in a way that just looks funny. But for the most part, the interactions feel so scripted that I looked forward to seeing Bill Murray as Frank the funeral director, even though the faux sincerity and hipster deadpan that worked so well for Murray on SNL and in silly stuff like Ghostbusters and Zombieland usually bother me in serious movies. Those traits don’t really fit here either (the movie explains Frank’s anachronistic attitude by having him hail from Chicago, which is about as plausible as the Coneheads claiming to be from France), but they provide a welcome bubble of wit in a syrupy sea of sincerity. In fact, Murray’s performance made me wonder if the whole thing might have worked better if it were played for laughs.
But the Hollywood histrionics continue right up to the climax, in which Felix uses the occasion of his living funeral to announce his big secret to everyone from miles around. Even if that speech worked dramatically (which it didn’t, since the story he told wasn’t as dark as the one I’d imagined), it just wouldn’t have felt right: People didn’t make those kinds of self-justifying public confessions in that time and place, especially not people like Felix.
Looking for info online about the real Breazeale, I came across something that said he never tried to explain why he became a hermit, but he did tell someone why he never married. “The one I wanted, I couldn’t get, and the ones I could get I didn’t want,” he reportedly said. Now, that sounds about right.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.