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August 8, 2010

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Planning your own live funeral

ROBERT Duvall looks great as a grizzled old coot, while Bill Murray makes a mighty fine funeral director. Surround them with sharp old-timey details of the Depression-era boondocks and the fit is even better.

That is the lowdown on "Get Low," a very old-fashioned comic drama whose charm comes more from the characters, performances and rich period feel than from the story itself, which is inspired by real events but strains at the reins a bit in its fictionalized elements.

Duvall is perfect as a rural hermit who abruptly ends 40 years of seclusion to arrange a "living funeral" so he can hear what people might have to say about him while he is still around.

With terrific support from Murray, Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black and Bill Cobbs, "Get Low" marks a rosy feature-film debut by director Aaron Schneider, a veteran cinematographer whose 2003 tale, "Two Soldiers," won an Academy Award as best live-action short film.

From "Two Soldiers," a 1940s-era William Faulkner adaptation, to "Get Low" was a natural progression, both films set in the rural South and intricately recreating a backwoods folksiness with deep warmth and humor.

Duvall's Felix Bush is the local bogeyman around his late-1930s town, where boys sneak up and toss rocks through the windows of his isolated home and adults spread tall tales of supposed violence in the old man's past.

After Felix learns of an old friend's death, four decades of ruminating alone over his dark secrets boil over.

He decides to throw a funeral party where people can come and say whatever they like about him, his way to "get low," or down to business, as he prepares himself for the true end of his life.

Down-on-his-luck undertaker Frank Quinn (Murray), amusingly lamenting how "people are dying in bunches everywhere but here," jumps at the chance to stage Felix's living funeral and assigns his good-hearted apprentice (Black) to help make arrangements with the ornery old gent.

Duvall's character is based on a Tennessee loner who became a local celebrity for holding a living funeral for himself in 1938.

To add Hollywood drama, screenwriters Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell build a grim mystery into Felix's past that touches on old flame Mattie Darrow (Spacek).

It makes for a marvelous act of confession and redemption for Felix, with Duvall delivering a heartbreaking soliloquy loaded with moments that are the stuff of best-actor clips come Oscar night, where the actor could well be heading for this performance.


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