Essays · Movies

Bill Murray in the 1990s

In tribute to the actor’s most underrated decade.
Bill Murray 1990s Quick Change
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on May 17th, 2016

Few acting careers are as interesting as Bill Murray’s. Not just in the body of work but the progression of movie roles. It’s not that Murray’s filmography has been a fluid train over the past 40 years, even in its ups and downs and transitions through broader comedy or deeper drama. However, we can see a solid line from his Saturday Night Live days and 1980s blockbuster comedies to the Oscar nominee years with their indie-heavy focus and cult-level fandom. In the middle, bridging seemingly disconnected eras, is his most interesting, if not also his best, decade in terms of professional output: the 1990s.

On the one end of this period, albeit three years in, we have Murray’s peak Hollywood star moment with 1993’s time-loop fantasy Groundhog Day. And on the other end, albeit premiering more than a year before the millennium changeover, we have the movie that supposedly changed everything, 1998’s Rushmore. That one introduced the ongoing collaboration between Murray and filmmaker Wes Anderson that dominates our consideration of the actor in the 21st century, much more than his work with other indie auteurs like Sofia Coppola, who directed him to his Academy Award nod, and Jim Jarmusch.

If the 1990s for Murray’s career is seen as a downturn because of the middling mid-decade run of Kingpin, Larger Than Life, Space Jam, and The Man Who Knew Too Little, that’s too bad for a couple of reasons. One is that he’s done plenty of bad movies in the past 16 years, many of which seem more like paycheck parts he didn’t care about than even the comedy where he co-stars with an elephant. Another is related: he is still enjoyable in all of these movies. He has fun with them. And the two movies he leads, both of which are thought among his worst, offer performances unlike we’re used to from him.

Murray is particularly underrated in 1997’s The Man Who Knew Too Little, a dumb spy comedy he shouldn’t be well-suited for. He plays a funny idiot, and it’s so rare that he does this sort of role that it’s a welcome change from the usual cranky, self-centered character that’s been his wheelhouse through both of his eras (in different forms). It is, of course, a lesser version of what he does much better in the 1991 comedy What About Bob?, a truly underrated movie whereas a multi-phobic but happy-go-lucky guy he clashes brilliantly against an explosive Richard Dreyfuss (apparently the actors did, as well, and that surely helped the on-screen madness magic).

What About Bob? followed another of his greatest comedic performances and characters, in the decade-starting Quick Change. Murray co-directed the movie, which could be a reason why he managed to change up his usual mix of self-involved cynics and Scrooges to be another sarcastic and angry man yet one with more reason and nuance. As a guy who robs a bank mainly to get himself out of the (wonderful) cesspool that was New York City in the late ‘80s, he has such an exciting presence because it’s an active character, unlike the other curmudgeons he played around the same time, where the plot happens to them and they just go along for the ride.

Too much credit is given to Murray himself for where his career has gone since Anderson made him hip again. That’s not a knock against the actor so much as a nod to the better filmmakers he’s worked with alongside the usual fluff and junk that fans now choose to just ignore. But to Murray’s credit, he was trying to do more interesting things in the ’90s, despite how his professional gamble with The Razor’s Edge a decade earlier temporarily ruined him from movies. He’s ultimately wrong for his parts in Mad Dog and Glory and even Ed Wood, in which he’s fine but ill-fitting, but he took those chances. And if anything is to be recognized about Space Jam, it’s that the live-action/animation hybrid had him playing “himself” long before Jarmusch gave him the chance, just not in as cool of a way.

There is a slight crack in the track of Murray’s progression as an actor visible between 1997 and 1998, when he went from dying his hair dark and going totally doofy in The Man Who Knew Too Little and when he started showing a grayer side in Rushmore (which didn’t really open in theaters until 1999, the year he went full gray in The Cradle Will Rock, which in turn didn’t really open until 2000). We can call that crack his forgettable appearance in Wild Things, if we like, but mostly it’s a striking delineation from younger Murray to older Murray, livelier to more tired yet also more distinguished looking.

Otherwise, outside of his Oscar-nominated stint in Lost in Translation and because of his greater popularity this century, there’s not a whole lot different about him between then and now. He’s continued to work with the Farrelly Brothers, proving that his hilarious performance in their best movie, Kingpin, wasn’t just any job to him. And he’s done more bad spy comedy stuff (Get Smart), more work opposite elephants (even if they’re totally CGI now, as in The Jungle Book), and we shouldn’t be shocked if he makes a cameo in Space Jam 2. He finally came around to at least committing to a brief appearance in the new Ghostbusters, after all.

Nothing in the last two decades, however, has been comparable in representing his true talent the way the double shot of Quick Change and What About Bob? did in ‘90-’91. He’s too often just Bill Murray these days, even when he’s not playing “Bill Murray.” And that’s what a lot of people like from him, it seems. He has tried different things, including a great little-seen bit in Lost City and his portrayal of FDR in Hyde Park on Hudson, though nothing interesting and exciting enough for us to be accepting him as a whole other, better actor in the 2000s and 2010s than in the 1990s.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.