The Razor's Edge, based on Somerset Maugham's novel, is the story of a man's search for the meaning of life. Heavy stuff. Throw in some "war is hell" experiences and a little personal tragedy, and it could get really depressing. If nothing else, though, the new film version of The Razor's Edge isn't depressing, due solely to the fact that Bill Murray is playing the lead.

Obviously, the big question about this film is, can Bill Murray play a straight part? The Razor's Edge doesn't quite answer that question. Murray's performance is a qualified success. The character is still presented with many serious problems and still has an overwhelming desire to find meaning in his life, but Murray also infuses him with a lively sense of humor. Doing so could be regarded as an inability to completely let go of his comedy background, or a daring attempt to play the character against type. Probably it's a little of both. Larry Durrell is a difficult part, and Murray gives a respectable interpretation. His performance does not, however, provide the touch of genius that would be necessary to make The Razor's Edge really work. (I suspect that the performance will look better to those who have never seen Murray do any comedy.)

The film's title refers to the difficulty of leading a good life, likening it to walking on a path as narrow as a razor's edge. (The title eventually takes on a grim second meaning.) Larry Durrell is a young American who goes to France as an ambulance driver during World War I. When he returns to America, his war experiences make him unable to settle into the comfortable, steady life awaiting him. He goes back to France, where he begins to study philosophy while working as a common laborer. His fiancee eventually leaves him because he is unwilling to return to a life based on an ambition to have a big house and a new car every year. On the suggestion of a particularly erudite coal miner, he travels to India. There, a sojourn in a monastery brings him some understanding. His return to France is followed by reacquaintance with his former friends, including his now-married fiancee and a widowed childhood sweetheart. These connections lead to further problems and further enlightenment. Durrell finally seems to have gained enough insight to live his life in peace, if not in happiness.

The above may sound a bit scattered. So is the film. The script has taken liberties with the novel, as might be expected. The major loss has been a real understanding of Durrell's spiritual journey. We are only given occasional bits of wisdom picked up here and there rather than a sense of a continuing search for a personal philosophy. One would have thought they could have fit more of that into two hours and ten minutes.

John Byrum, the director, does not do very much to pull it all together. He doesn't have any real vision, it seems, of how The Razor's Edge should progress. Some sequences are rather well done, others less so. A bit in the war sequences about denigrating lost comrades to ease the pain falls completely flat on a combination of writing, directing, and acting, the collective responsibility for which is totally Byrum's and Murray's, since they also wrote the script. Other sequences fail in other manners. The pacing of the first two thirds of the film is rather slow, as well, though it picks up a little towards the end. Paris looks unextraordinary and India far less beautiful and interesting than many other filmmakers have made it. Partial blame goes to the cinematographer, whose name I do not have before me at the moment, but who, under the circumstances, would surely not mind anonymity. (He did, however, come up with one fine shot of sunrise on a battlefield.)

The supporting cast is competent, but unextraordinary. Denholm Elliot and Theresa Russell have both been much better in other films. James Keach has one good moment as Murray's best friend, but otherwise his character serves as mere plot contrivance. Catherine Hicks comes off best as the fiancee unwilling to sacrifice her comfort for Murray's quest, but equally unwilling to let go of him. Brian Doyle-Murray, like his brother, seems to be skirting between a comic and a dramatic portrayal in his role as the chief ambulance driver, though he angles a bit more towards the serious side.

The Razor's Edge is curiously unengaging for a film for which so many of the people involved expressed deep feelings. The producer went to great lengths to obtain the rights to the novel, Byrum and Murray practically committed economic blackmail to get in on it, and Murray made production of the film a precondition for selling Ghostbusters to Columbia. Only Murray's contribution seems to show any real interest for the material, and then only his acting. Even that is not totally on target.

I had my doubts about this picture since first hearing of it, and it's turned out to be much what I expected. The Razor's Edge proves to be another case of a noble attempt to film the unfilmable, following in the footsteps of such misguided efforts as Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury (starring Yul Brenner, would you believe?), and Steppenwolf. Tracing spiritual and philosophical matters in a film calls for genius. Enthusiasm isn't enough.

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