Thursday, January 22, 2015

1980 Week: Where the Buffalo Roam

          Even at the very beginning of his film career, Bill Murray made it clear he intended to be more than just a funnyman. After essentially transposing his wiseass Saturday Night Live persona into the lowbrow Canadian comedy Meatballs (1979), Murray gave himself a proper acting challenge in his next picture, Where the Buffalo Roam, a pseudo-biopic about notorious Rolling Stone political correspondent Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. By all accounts, Murray nailed his characterization, and even the hard-to-please Thomas was enamored of Murray’s performance. Unfortunately, the movie that producer-director Art Linson built around his leading actor is a mess. The first clue, of course, is that Murray gets second billing after Peter Boyle, because Where the Buffalo Roam is about the relationship between Thompson and wild-man attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta, whom the film fictionalizes as a character named Carl Lazlo (played by Boyle). While Boyle was a veteran film actor with a small measure of box-office power, Lazlo is subordinate in terms of narrative importance and screen time to Thompson.
          However, this is the least of the movie’s problems.
          Loosely adapting two Thompson articles, screenwriter John Kaye presents a jumbled story about Thompson trying to write a memorial article about Lazlo, who has disappeared in South America and is presumed dead. This occasions flashbacks to the duo’s peculiar experiences over the years. Thompson first meets Lazlo while the lawyer defends a bunch of counterculture kids facing drug charges, and later, Lazlo involves Thompson in a mad scheme to arm and finance South American rebels. Meanwhile, Thompson has unrelated escapades, including a bacchanalian hospital stay, a rambunctious college-lecture tour, and a scandalous tenure riding in the press plane accompanying a Nixon-like presidential candidate. Clearly, Kaye and Linson hoped to cram in every exciting story they’d ever heard about Thompson—a maniac known for his abuse of controlled substances and for his fearless challenges to those in power. Yet in trying to frame the movie around the episodic Lazlo/Thompson relationship, Linson dissipated any hope of narrative cohesion. Where the Buffalo Roam is a collection of sketches, and very few of them are actually funny.
          It’s hard to fault Murray, who commits wholeheartedly to his performance. He’s exactly as dangerous, indulgent, marble-mouthed, and reckless as Thompson was reputed to be in real life. Yet Murray’s performance is almost more dramatic in nature than comedic, partly because Thompson was self-destructive, and partly because Thompson was an unapologetic asshole. There’s a fine line between Murray’s default characterization—the smart aleck who winks at little tin gods—and Thompson’s scorched-earth approach to life. Additionally, Boyle isn’t funny at all as Lazlo, who comes across like a raving maniac instead of a visionary. Some moments in Where the Buffalo Roam work, particularly Thompson’s rabble-rousing lecture before an enthusiastic college crowd, but the overall “story” is shapeless and weird and unsatisfying.

Where the Buffalo Roam: FUNKY

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