Those of us who believe Bill Murray to be God are quite sincere in our belief. We're not just saying it to be nice. What otherwise are we to make of his majestic inaccessibility, his lack of an agent or a publicist or even a telephone number?
At the same time, there is his mysterious omnipresence, as he drops out of a clear blue sky to play kickball on Roosevelt Island while wearing a woolly hat, plays the tambourine in Texas, drives golf carts around Stockholm, dances the Conga in Cannes, or joins karaoke parties in New York with pretty Dutch girls to buy everyone Chartreuse and sing Elvis Presley's Marie's the Name.
As the New York Times noted this week:
"Tracking his movements in the wild, as he crashes karaoke parties and kickball games, has become an online pastime; Mr Murray himself has become the folkloric equivalent of a leprechaun or fairy godparent, popping up at unpredictable yet opportune moments."
Numerous theories have been floated to explain these deus-ex-machina drop-ins. The first is that he is suffering "his own unique mid-life crisis", as Page Six put it, and that following his divorce from his wife of 11 years Murray has taken to "trawling for serendipity in the New York night", hitting on pretty young women, engaging hipsters in conversation about the joys of sweet potato casserole, seeming to be "stuck in his own version of Groundhog Day meets Lost in Translation" before disappearing into the night with the words "nobody will ever believe you".
Certainly, many of the stories involve some variation on "Bill Murray Pairs up with Pretty Girl in Foreign Country and Crashes Party". Most famously, there is the time Murray turned up at a party in St Andrews, in Scotland, in the company 22-year-old Norwegian student named Lykke, drinking vodka from a cup. He insisted on doing the washing-up.
The mixture of vodka, Norwegian and domestic detail recalls the late-night telephone calls of the comedian Peter Cook, who in the early 90s took to calling British radio shows in the guise of a Norwegian fisherman named Sven, anxious to unburden himself of his delight that not all British radio phone-ins were about fish. This was unlike Norway, he would explain, where the fish phone-ins had become so bad that his wife, Yuta, had left him.
Those calls – in which Sven trailed Yuta from Majorca to Dusseldorf – have an indescribably lonesome, sozzled ache. Murray's peregrinations have an altogether more sociable and joyous arc, whether they involve reading poetry to construction workers in New York or bartending at rock festivals – as he did at the SXSW in Austin in 2010, refusing to serve anything except tequila. He was later seen acting as a roadie for a band, the Like.
Murray is not ducking his celebrity in such moments, but turning it inside out. The sign-off with which he likes to end these impromptu appearances – "Nobody will ever believe you" – suggests a Dadaist-comedy-happening in the vein of Steve Martin's act in the late 70s. Martin would end his stand-up show by leading the audience out of the theatre and into, say, an empty swimming pool, where he would "swim" lengths above their outstretched arms, or to the local McDonald's, where he would order 274 burgers before changing his order at the last moment to "one fry to go".
Such innovations were the result of Martin's genuine cluelessness as to how to end a show that was structured around open-endedness. As he writes in his memoir, Born Standing Up:
"What if there were no punch-lines? What if I created tension and I never released it? Eventually I thought, the laughs would be playing catch-up with what I was doing. Everything would be delivered in passing or he opposite, an elaborate presentation that climaxed in pointlessness."
Essentially, Martin was evolving a form of stand-up that dissolved the boundary between stand-up and life. It vaporised the fourth wall, delivering the comedian quite literally into the arms of his audience (although these days, Martin gives off the matte unapproachability that is more typical of off-duty comedians). Murray seems to be working in reverse. Relatively late in his career, he has turned his life into a form of stand-up – an extended existential skit, with its own props and goofy bits of business, powered by the buzz of his own celebrity, for an à la carte contact high that leaves a grin on everyone's face.
Did you ever think that the lessons you first learned on the stage of an improv comedy theater in Chicago would pay off later in life?
It pays off in your life when you're in an elevator and people are uncomfortable. You can just say, 'That's a beautiful scarf.' It's just thinking about making someone else feel comfortable. You don't worry about yourself, because we're vibrating together. If I can make yours just a little bit groovier, it'll affect me. It comes back, somehow.
If this is a midlife crisis, it's a remarkably soft-hearted one, like King Lear with flowers in his hair, or Lear and Fool rolled into one.
There is another explanation, though, and it's a lot simpler: Bill Murray is, in fact, God.
'A comedian, playing to an audience too afraid to laugh'
I know, I know. These are cynical times. Faith is hard to come by in the era of partisan gridlock, turmoil in the Middle East and that last episode of Homeland. But remember Groundhog Day, from 1992, in which Murray played Phil Conners, a man cursed to live the same day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, over and over again, until he is on first name terms with every waitress and can predict every dropped plate and anticipate every line of dialogue. The role was a perfect fit for Murray: the rumpled, mock-suave hipster clown whose flat disc of a face has always born the unshockable expression of a man who knows exactly what everyone is about to say seconds before they say it.
That's what deadpan is, essentially, a physiognomical register of omniscience. It is the face of God. Murray's role in Groundhog Day was essentially that of a bored deity, trying to figure out how to wile away eternity.
He wouldn't be the first comedian to play God. George Burns did so in Oh God! (1977) and Jim Carrey did it in Bruce Almighty (2003). Not for nothing did the philosopher Voltaire once compare God to a "comedian, playing to an audience too afraid to laugh". Comedians always have a loosely transcendent relationship with the dramas they are in, sharing space with the other characters and breathing the same air but at the same time establishing a visceral lightning-connection with the audience that leaps over the heads of the other characters to punch a hole through the fourth wall. That's why Murray, like so many comedians, was born to appear in flimsy films like Meatballs (1979) Caddyshack (1980) and Stripes (1981). The flimsier the film, the easier the punch. It's also why he faced an uphill struggle in his first attempts at dramatic roles, in The Razor's Edge (1984) and Mad Dog And Glory (1993). In each film, the deck tilted queasily beneath the audience's feet as they tensed for a punchline that never came. We don't like seeing our Gods made mortal.
There were two solutions, it turns out. One was to work with directors like Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola and Jim Jarmusch, who shared his sense of irony, and build films that echo the melancholy that came with it: films like Rushmore (1998), Lost in Translation (2003) and Broken Flowers (2005), in which the ironic hipster clown becomes "God's loneliest man", as David Edelstein put it. "The sense of being outside himself is total."
The other solution, it would appear, is to play President Roosevelt – not quite God, but the next best thing. I'll leave Roger Michell's Hyde Park on Hudson to the critics, but Murray's performance – his voice hoisted up in imitation of FDR's patrician drawl, head thrown back in laughter, teeth bared, his martini glass brimming o'er with good cheer – is probably the most seamless dramatic performance of his career. It's never less than Bill Murray and yet that fact never throws the imitation off. Rather, the two facets of the performance entwine, lifting each other up.
I'm still trying to figure out how he did it, but suspect it has something to do with the odd, centreless gravity of Michell's movie, which has FDR not dead-centre but rather a twinkly master of ceremonies in the mold of PG Wodehouse's Lord Emsworth, juggling a small harem of mistresses and some royal guests with a dexterity that makes you entirely forget the fact that he's crippled.
The absence of self-pity is probably the only thing standing between Murray and an Oscar. He doesn't disappear into the role so much as the air of moonlit mischief that hangs over the entire movie. Somebody put him in one of Shakespeare's comedies, quick.
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image: © Paul Sherwood