Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Would you have a drink with this man?

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Bill Murray

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What fictional pop culture figure would you like to go drinking with?”

Protagonists can be a bore. We’ve all been taught that in a good story, the narrative and the hero’s objectives should be inseparable: the conflict should emerge moment to moment from something that the protagonist urgently needs to accomplish, and when his goal has been met—or spectacularly thwarted—the story is over. That’s true enough, and a work that structures itself according to these principles will be infinitely more readable than one that moves aimlessly from one manufactured encounter to another. In practice, though, it often results in leads who are boringly singleminded: when his every action needs to advance the plot, there isn’t enough room for the digressions and loose ends that bring characters to life. That’s why the star of a sitcom or dramatic series is often the least interesting person in sight. Unlike the supporting cast, which has room to go off on tangents, the guy at the center of the show has to strike a constant balance between action, motivation, and relatability, which can drain him of all surprise. A sidekick gets to drift along with the current, and his detours aren’t fatal to the momentum, while the protagonist is under so much narrative pressure that when the story relaxes, he bursts, like a fish brought up from its crevasse to the surface.

As a result, when we think about fictional characters we’d most like to spend time with, we tend to gravitate toward the secondary players. If nothing else, they seem like they’d be willing to sit down and have a drink with us, unlike the protagonist, whose mind would always be skipping ahead to the next plot point. In recent years, television has given us protagonists with the richness and unpredictability of great supporting characters—from Tony Soprano to Don Draper to Walter White—but even they wouldn’t make particularly good drinking companions. Even when a dramatic series allows its protagonist more breathing space, the leads are often burdened with so much backstory that the prospect of hanging out with them seems vaguely exhausting, if not terrifying. We simply know too much about these men and women to relax around them. (This may be why characters in procedurals or more episodic shows, whom we get to know over many years without the cumbersome weight of an overarching story, seem like more fun. I’d love to have a drink with Sherlock Holmes, as long as Watson was there to keep him on his best behavior, and it would be great to kick back with any member of the first two crews of the Enterprise.)

Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye

In film, where the tension between plot and character can be especially crushing, it’s often a particular actor’s magic that gives us the impression that a protagonist would make for an entertaining drinking companion. I’ve never been as big a fan of The Big Lebowski as some of its devotees, but I can see the shaggy appeal of The Dude, who ambles haphazardly through his own movie like an oddball supporting character who managed to wander into the center. Jeff Bridges deserves much of the credit for this, of course, and it’s no surprise that he’s ended up as the icon of a loosely organized cult: we’d all be happier if we and our friends were more like The Dude than, say, Jason Bourne. The Big Lebowski, in turn, is partially an homage to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, which benefits in equal measure from Elliot Gould’s presence as Philip Marlowe. It’s possible that the seventies were the golden age of the hangout movie: the rise of independent productions and the auteur director allowed unconventional actors to migrate into leading roles, and if they seem less focused than your standard leading men, it may be because they’re just happy to be there. And we’re happy to be around them.

Sometimes an actor can coast so much on that illusion of affability that the result turns into laziness: I’m not an admirer of Adam Sandler, but he’s clearly a guy that a lot of moviegoers think they’d like as a buddy, which is why his movies have gradually turned into excuses for him to hang out with his friends by the pool. At best, though, an actor’s natural air of ease can become his greatest asset, as long as it’s paired with a director who is committed to using it in interesting ways. Bill Murray has always had a tendency to float through his roles, and one of the great pleasures of a movie like Ghostbusters or Groundhog Day is the chance to watch him maintain his sardonic equanimity through the strangest of circumstances. But it wasn’t until Murray fell in with Wes Anderson—and, to a lesser extent, Sofia Coppola—that he found the perfect setting for his gifts. The Murray of Rushmore or The Life Aquatic is, as Pauline Kael said of the late Cary Grant, a peerless creation, and it’s no accident that Anderson so often films him with a beer or a bottle in one hand. (“Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go on an overnight drunk, and in ten days I’m going to set out to find the shark that ate my friend and destroy it.“) I’d love to have a drink with Bill Murray. But, failing that, I’ll happily settle for another two hours with Steve Zissou.

Written by nevalalee

April 11, 2014 at 10:26 am

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