Overview: A young man in an alternate universe tries to make it as an artist in a surreal version of Manhattan. 1984; MGM; 119 Minutes.
The Backstory: Last week, the A.V. Club reported that a film that had been “buried” by MGM for thirty years had resurfaced in its entirety on YouTube. Movies like this come and go, shelved after their release or orphaned before they find an audience, weeded out from the growing garden of film. What makes this rediscovery more newsworthy than most, however, is the involvement of a certain larger-than-life icon: Bill Murray. Most headlines reporting the cinematic resurrection are referring to the film as an “undiscovered Bill Murray film.” I watched this film in its entirety, expecting to report back with a career retrospective measuring the developing mythology of Hollywood’s most fabled star against a moment in his career when his performances were no guarantee of film success. This thesis was quickly abandoned, as it didn’t take long for me to realize that there were many reasons to discuss this film beyond Murray’s participation. But that’s not a bad place to start.
The Bill Murray Factor: In the most apparent sense, it is unfair to describe Nothing Lasts Forever as an “undiscovered Bill Murray film” because Bill Murray has just a small part in this very complex film, showing up in the final act as a bus driver piloting tourists to the moon (we’ll get to the plot in a moment). Those interested only in witnessing Murray’s performance might skip to the one hour mark and they won’t be disappointed. Murray lends to the role his trademark zany delivery, his subtle unpredictability, his elbows tucked in and straight, no nudging or winking to the audience, even when the comedy stretches to the quirkiest boundary.
The Lesser Dan Akroyd Factor: For me, though, the most interesting aspect of Murray’s recent iconic-ism elevating the film back into the public eye is his sole occupation of the headline. This lost film was produced in 1984, the same year as the smash hit Ghostbusters. Murray’s co-star in that film, Dan Akroyd, is also on display in this one. In 1984, the two actors had comparable comedic standing. Both were sought after talent and box office draws. Just as the resurgence of the forgotten film highlights the meteoric rise of Bill Murray’s status and the invaluable cultural currency of his name, the current public description of the film just as accurately illustrates Dan Akroyd’s journey into modern mediocrity. To be clear, Akroyd is equally adept at his role here, with humorous mish-mash of bumbling and sharp-tongued, speaking a disoriented mile-a-minute of absurdities and obvious truths.
The Good Movie Factor: Certain mistaken news outlets have lead readers (and potential viewers) to believe that this film was buried because it was simply bad. They might paint the abstract and arbitrary elements of the story to be “nonsensical” in the way those films targeted by Mysterious Science Theater 3000 were nonsensical. But this is misguided and wrong. Nothing Lasts Forever was written and directed by celebrated Saturday Night Live writer Tom Schiller. Schiller’s absurdist comedic approach is whip-smart and precise in every scene, never overwhelming, sometimes easy to overlook, and every onscreen actor is aware of the joke (fans of MST3K will note that this isn’t the case in bad movies). Schiller’s story holds notes of Gilliam and Orwell (at least in the beginning), and his script has some astute observations to make about cultural standardization, the bleakness of a society built on specialization, the contemporary art scene, and the nature of art itself. The star of the movie is Zach Galligan, who, at the time, was enjoying a pretty solid year himself (Gremlins was also released in 1984). Galligan’s wide-eyed and innocent “gee golly, holy moly, I’d sure like to do some art” portrayal of the central hero Adam Beckett serves as the perfect vehicle to drive through a bizarre narrative that visits strange dream sequences, parallel realms of reality, disruptive musical numbers, and a tour bus to the moon. But, perhaps the most strikingly commendable aspect of the film is its stylistic mastery. Howard Shore (who has since gone on to work on the music of the Lord of the Rings trilogy) scores the film as impressively as any of the era. And the film is shot, edited, and acted in a way that recalls the form of the great Hollywood films of the 1940s.
The Wrong Time/Wrong Place Factor: With its overtly inaccessible storyline, this isn’t a film for everyone. And it certainly isn’t a film built for box office gold in the formulaic (if edgy) comedic era of the early 1980s. But, had the film been released in the midst of the 90s independent wave, it might have harnessed a more deserved reputation: perhaps seen as a cult classic intersection between Gilliam’s Brazil and Burton’s Ed Wood. Most likely, Nothing Lasts Forever will find its legacy as a footnote in Bill Murray’s biography, perhaps somewhere between his bachelor party speech and (my favorite) his repetitive prank phone call to Kelly Lynch’s husband. But for now, it’s available to watch in full, and it would be a shame if two generations of cinephiles miss out.