Get Low

True story: Somewhere in the South during the Great Depression, an old man lived alone in the woods; one day, for reasons unknown, he decided to host his own funeral. That is, it’s true that it’s a story. And that there actually was such an old man.

Now there actually is a movie, which asks: By what process does a man become a reclusive codger? How might he unbecome one? Will a clean shave and an ironic yet redemptive ceremony be enough? The questions are more or less rhetorical in “Get Low,” though, on account of the old man being played by Robert Duvall. But there is another question, too: How should an audience respond when a performance comes so naturally to a great actor that he renders it superfluous?

In the movie, they call him Felix Bush. They call him other things, too. Not nice things. He has not endeared himself to his community. He has a “No Trespassing” sign in his yard, but kids still throw rocks at his windows, so he puts up a “No Damn Trespassing” sign, which adds, “Beware of Mule.” Although presented as a man of mystery, he is easy to recognize: anti-social, stubborn, sardonic, secretly cuddly.

It’s already a coup when Felix comes in to town at all; his quest for a living funeral just makes matters stranger. And it’s fitting that the only person who might be of any use to him is a struggling undertaker and slightly seedy Chicago transplant played by Bill Murray. Just as it’s intriguing that Felix’s resurfacing doesn’t escape the notice of a former lover played by Sissy Spacek.

Admittedly this is a delicious setup; “Get Low” very considerately takes pains to establish its potential for greatness. Unfortunately, it never establishes the greatness, settling instead for patness. The script, by Chris Provenzano, Scott Seeke and C. Gaby Mitchell, has its honor, which first-time director Aaron Schneider will not risk offending, so his scenes become affectedly laconic, ploddingly paced and highly redolent of sentimental Southern Gothic schlock.

And maybe the filmmaker is too awed by the edifice of his leading man. Schneider’s over-punctuating pauses do allow time to reflect on how much great work Duvall has done since he got started in movies as “To Kill a Mockingbird”‘s Boo Radley, another Southern rural pariah, nearly half a century ago. He’s still got it, we’re meant to think. But we’d had no reason to suspect otherwise, at least not until the apparent lapse of discernment that delivered this.

“I want everybody to come who’s got a story to tell about me,” Felix tells the mortician. Later will be revealed, and belabored, the fact that he has a story of his own, but isn’t sure he’ll be able to get it out. Fair enough: It’s the story of something awful from way back when, and the reason he’s lived alone in the woods all these years. Obviously he’s gone this long without getting it out. One other thing: His living funeral will have a lottery, the winner of which will inherit his land. (No matter, apparently, that the old man plans to be buried in a graveyard full of his own dogs, just a few feet from the house’s front door.)

None of these payoffs is worth waiting for, and the movie seems to know it. Yet we feel for it — even when it embarrasses itself by importing Felix’s forgotten antagonistic pal (Bill Cobbs), an old black preacher from long ago and far away, as if to say: Hey, Clint Eastwood has Morgan Freeman, so what if Duvall has this guy?

Low, indeed. But in fact, the movie’s group dynamic is its best asset. Spacek, given the least to work with, also is the least showy of this cast’s lot, with the sharpest sense of how to fill a silence. And even Murray’s earnest family-man assistant, a placeholder, is played with infectious warmth and directness by Lucas Black. We’re still only a few degrees away from Hallmark here, with David Boyd’s cinematography cleverly concealing the requisite sepia in autumnal earth tones. But that’s just how “Get Low” goes: by taking some inherently lovely textures — Duvall’s depth, Murray’s wit, the lonely twang of a Dobro on the soundtrack — and planing them into something much too smooth. Maybe it was better off as merely a true story.