"The Razor's Edge" gives us the quintessential '80s sensibility, Bill Murray, indulging a nostalgia for the '60s masquerading as the '20s. An adaptation of the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, this longtime pet project of Murray's will only disappoint his many fans.
Larry Darrell (Murray), serving in the American Ambulance Service during World War I, has a close shave with death when German infantry storm his foxhole, but he's saved by Piedmont (Brian Doyle-Murray, Murray's brother, a bluff stage comedian who deserves better), a fellow corpsman who dies in his place. Traumatized, Darrell jettisons the comfortable life and comfortable wife that Society has set up for him, and hightails it on a quest to discover the Meaning of Life.
That odyssey takes him to Paris, where he reads a shelf full of books, to India, where he burns his books for warmth (and thus finds inner peace), and back to Paris again, where he discovers that life is, indeed, harsh. His fiance' Isabel (Catherine Hicks) has married his best friend Gray (James Keach), who cracked up when the bottom fell out of the bond market and his father committed suicide; his buddy Sophie (Theresa Russell), whose husband and child were killed in a car crash, has become a drunken demimondaine. By the end, "The Razor's Edge" is as littered with corpses as "Gone With the Wind." But no matter -- the body, like all material things, is nothing but a poor, cracked vessel for the human soul.
Why dredge up Maugham's novel, already adapted once for the screen (with Tyrone Power), from its deserved obscurity? Something in its pseudo-Stoicism seems to have touched Murray, with disastrous results. What makes Murray so appealing in his other movies is the way he plays nothing straight. Shambling around slope-shouldered, his expression a doughy, W.C. Fieldsian badge of corrupt detachment, he's a chameleon who survives by mimicking the lunatic seriousness around him with bemused exaggeration. The personification of Andy Warhol's remark that he has always felt, in living his life, that he's been watching television, Murray has become a hero for a generation that grew up with "Leave It to Beaver" and Roger Corman and rock 'n' roll, a generation that both dismisses and loves pop culture, but doesn't know anything else.
Murray's style is reactive -- he plays best off other people's madness, whether he's telling the demon-frazzled Sigourney Weaver that "This is a new look for you, isn't it?" in "Ghostbusters," or opining "What a nutty hospital" when Dustin Hoffman finally breaks character in "Tootsie." But in "The Razor's Edge," other people react to him -- the cast becomes an audience grinning at his quirks. It reduces Murray to one of those Reader's Digest "Most Memorable Characters I Have Known," a lovable bum who dribbles his eccentric kindnesses on young and old, rich and poor alike, a favorite of butlers, children and old women. And the time warp sluicing Murray's style into the '20s is jarringly bizarre. Murray puts his comedy together with riffs drawn from contemporary popular culture, in the way a modernist sculptor welds fragments found in a junkyard. Much of the humor of "The Razor's Edge" simply isn't intelligible within the context of the period; he's a Connecticut hipster in President Hoover's court.
Murray is surrounded by a cast that is uniformly lousy. Keach performs with enervated good humor; Hicks sketches a grotesque caricature of WASP brittleness (come back, Mary Tyler Moore -- all is forgiven!). As Isabel's rich uncle, Denholm Elliott alone strives for a suitably old-fashioned style, but he's stymied by a role that is just a clunky symbol for the hollowness of wealth. And Theresa Russell has a panoramic de'colletage, onto which crumbs of the scenery fall as she greedily chews it.
Although directed by John Byrum, Murray cowrote the script -- "The Razor's Edge" is Murray's movie, his chance to make a Big Statement. As he looks across the vast expanse of the Himalayas (impressively photographed by Peter Hannan), Murray's eyes narrow and his face goes flat, as if wisdom would be his, were he only Oriental. It's genuinely depressing to watch the impeccably de'gage' Murray finally dropping his veil for this '60s granola of eastern mysticism, glib book burning and antimaterialism; you'd thought he stood for the generation that rejected all of that.
What is it that makes our entertainers so contemptuous of their own profession? "The Razor's Edge" belongs to the long line of pretentious self-inflation that runs from Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" through Sammy Davis' midnight ministry on the Carson show to Woody Allen's dubious excursions into High Cinema. It's enough to make you long for Bob Hope.