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Isn't there some residual whiff of Counterculture about Murray—a sense that he's quietly-but-firmly(-and-sometimes-not-so-quietly) thumbing his nose at whatever establishment is within shouting distance? Think of Tripper Harrison in Meatballs or John Winger in Stripes or Peter Venkman in the Ghostbusters movies. Each of them in positions that would typically denote respect or authority: Camp Counselor, Soldier, multiple PhD. Each of them dismissive of their whole racket. (Part of what makes Murray such an essential part of the Ghostbusters movies is that he simultaneously seems dismissive of people who don't believe in ghosts and his fellow ghostbusters.)
Murray doesn't play renegades, per se—although he was the first person to play gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, in 1980's Where the Buffalo Roam. But there's something frequently ''anti-'' about Murray's persona. In his earlier pictures, this reads like young-hotshot egotism. In his later pictures, the rebelliousness has faded into something wiser, and sadder.
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The Overconfident Ass
Or maybe the rebellious persona is just an act hiding a more pathological narcissism. One of Murray's best roles is 1998's Scrooged, which casts him as a malicious TV executive whose ambition manifests in hilariously aggressive commercials and a Christmas special so inane that it's less parody than outsider art. Like Groundhog Day, Scrooged is a redemption narrative, the story of a narcissist misanthrope evolving into a real human being. But Murray's also perfectly cast as a vain bowling champion in Kingpin, and in the underrated modern-dress Hamlet, where he plays legendary know-it-all know-nothing Polonius.
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Or maybe that overconfidence is a mask for something deeper; maybe the Murray character is just plain crazy. That's certainly true of Carl Spackler in Caddyshack, a curiously verbose assistant greenskeeper at a posh country club. There are holy fools, and then there's Carl, who spends the movie locked in an explosive death-duel with a gopher.
Murray's rarely been as flat-out crazy, but an unhinged streak runs throughout his filmography. He's a psychiatric patient in What About Bob? In the The Man Who Knew Too Little, Murray's an average guy who thinks he's in an interactive game, not realizing that he's actually caught up in an elaborate web of espionage and murder—and his blissful unawareness transforms him into a kind of superspy. Murray's lunatics are like mirrors—their craziness reveals that the world around them is even crazier.
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The Father Figure
So what happens when the sneering, sarcastic rebel grows up? Murray was only 48 when he made Rushmore, but his middle-aged millionaire Herman Blume feels much older. Adrift from his own family, he becomes a kind of paternal influence on young Max Fischer. But Murray's fathers are never just fathers—and so Herman and Max become rivals, and ultimately compatriots in general ruin.
This arc gets repeated, to a certain extent, in another Wes Anderson movie: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, a gorgeous demonstration of production design that occasionally becomes a real movie. Many of the best parts of Life Aquatic focus on the relationship between Steve and his maybe-son Ned, with Steve variously attempting way-too-late fatherhood while simultaneously competing with Ned for the affections of Cate Blanchett's pregnant reporter. Steve's a distant cousin of Broken Flowers' Don Johnston, a fading ladies' man obsessed by the possibility of a son he never knew he had.
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The joy of Murray's particular brand of deadpan is that what reads as insanity or overconfidence can also read as something like serenity. Especially once he hit middle age, Murray started being called upon to play all-knowing individuals, characters who acted above it all because they often were. Think of Murray's short The Grand Budapest Hotel role, in which his M. Ivan is a source of quiet strength just as the story descends into chaos.
Murray didn't particularly enjoy his experience in the first Charlie's Angels—maybe because his Bosley is merely the assistant to the omniscient Charlie. But Murray looks like he's having a blast in Wild Things. Playing one of the few fully-clothed characters, Murray's corrupt lawyer has basically no lines that aren't immediately memorable—and he seems to float above the fray of the movie's many double-crosses, grinning.
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Acerbic, dismissive, perpetually and proudly balding: Murray doesn't immediately come off as a romantic figure. Yet the sparks fly between Murray and Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters. Weirdly, their relationship is even more believable in Ghostbusters II—they've long since stopped dating, she's been married and divorced, and you can feel Weaver's simultaneous attraction to Murray and the recognition of his (perhaps significant) character flaws.
This sense that there's something attractive about his characters pops up more frequently in Murray's later work, yet whatever that thing is also prevents him from committing to a long-term relationship. In Lost in Translation, he carries on a quiet and never-quite-confirmed flirtation with Scarlett Johansson—but also sleeps with another woman. This upsets Johansson's Charlotte. (Murray's character has a wife who may be used to these dalliances...or maybe she never knows.)
Broken Flowers offers a parade of former girlfriends for Murray (played by Julie Delpy, Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Freaking Swinton!), yet it also clearly establishes why each relationship never worked out. From that perspective, there's something a bit melancholic at the core of Groundhog Day, which articulates most clearly this idea that the Murray character can only form a meaningful relationship with a woman if he literally relives his own life over and over.
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The Angry Man
What motivates the Bill Murray character? Is it anger? Again, you can look to Wes Anderson for the best exploration of this side of Murray's personality. In Moonrise Kingdom, Murray's Walt Bishop is a cuckolded husband barely repressing anger over his loss of control—control of his marriage, his family, his whole life. In a difficult moment, he reacts with violence against the one thing he's allowed to be violent against: ''I'll be out back. I'm going to find a tree to chop down.''
Maybe it's more accurate to say that Murray's filmography is rife with the avoidance of anger—with men who, faced with a world gone mad, try to come up with a survival system for not fighting back. Maybe they become acerbic. Maybe they just go away. As his marriage dissolves in The Royal Tenenbaums, Raleigh St. Clair deadpans, ''Well, I want to die.'' It's a funny line, but it speaks of a deeper sense of betrayal that runs throughout Murray's work. You can look all the way back to Murray's passion project The Razor's Edge: Most movies about wartime PTSD lead the characters to violence, or alcoholism, or general chaos; Murray retreats to a monastery.
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The Saddest Man in the World
Then again, maybe that rage is also another mask; maybe the Bill Murray persona is one defined by sadness, a magnificent depression cured only occasionally by whimsical humor. Films like Broken Flowers and Groundhog Day argue that there is something fundamentally out-of-joint about the Murray character—the way he floats through life becomes less omniscient and more melancholy, as if he's both more and less than the people around him. ''I hope the roof flies off, and I get sucked up into space,'' Murray says in Moonrise Kingdom. ''You'll be better off without me.''
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Murray loves to golf, of course. Not just because one of his first famous roles was in Caddyshack. You could describe golf as the deadpan game, a sport built on triumph and tragedy, a sport of personal frustration mixed with very occasional soaring self-confidence. You imagine the swirl of emotions Murray might feel before each shot; you also imagine the grace he must feel when those emotions stop swirling. Murray's love affair with golf was on the record long before he played with Michael Jordan in Space Jam; in the early 2000s, Murray starred in a golf show with his brothers, The Sweet Spot.
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The Talk Show Guest
No examination of Murray would be complete without noting how Murray has perfected the curious art of appearing on a talk show. Murray's frequent visits to Late Night With David Letterman are perfect expressions of Murray's absurdist instincts. See: His October 2014 sitdown, which he left halfway through to train for the New York marathon.
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The Bill Murray
And perhaps it's most accurate to simply say that Bill Murray has perfected the fine art of being Bill Murray—a curiously perfect celebrity for our age, refining the ability of turning himself into a running meme. Murray played Murray in Space Jam, but his roles in Coffee and Cigarettes and Zombieland feel closer to his heart: Goofy, weird, serving coffee to rappers, and pretending to be undead during a zombie apocalypse. A few years after Zombieland, Bill Murray decided to play some kickball. Where will he pop up next? Isn't ''everywhere and nowhere'' the only answer?