What To Watch: Comedic Timing in ‘Larger Than Life’ (1997)
Remembering this 90s Bill Murray comedy.
Larger Than Life is a 1997 comedy drama about a man who inherits a circus elephant and takes to the road in an attempt to sell it, learning much about the animal and himself along the way.
I don’t know about you, but I really like that short phase in the nineties where Bill Murray seemed to be in an out-of-body-experience in every role, looking as if he was drifting through films on auto pilot, mostly because looking back, it was clear he was in a metamorphosis, transitioning into the next level actor he is now so widely recognized for, even though few knew it was in him. From Mad Dog and Glory to Space Jam and The Man Who Knew Too Little, he was piling up a series of movies that left few opportunities for Murray to be classic Murray while never reaching for the dramatic heights he was soon to reach.
These were innocuous movies that critics mostly abandoned and fans tolerated, but with the right sight, are pretty dark and telling of the exploration he was attempting in breaking from the Murray standards while setting himself for the right directors to take notice. Also, they are funny. Murray is a funny guy. It’s just science.
Larger Than Life is another one of these movies, superficially a road trip comedy that puts an animal in one of the oddball character roles, and while that all by itself is loaded with potential, Murray and company steer this into a deadpan satire that is razor sharp, and dare it be said, ahead of its time, meaning perhaps, well, now is that time. Let’s see why.
THE STORY: Directed by Howard Franklin, the film centers on Jack Corcoran (Murray), a motivational speaker who starts the movie with a speech to an upholstery convention about overcoming obstacles to find success, telling of his own experience of never knowing his father, who died before he was born. He’s on the brink of breaking into the big time, hoping to land an infomercial. However, he receives a telegram from an attorney in Baltimore that flips his whole life upside down. In a very big way.
Turns out his father only recently passed away, his mother (Anita Gillette) confessing that she lied to him about his dad because she worried he would be a bad influence. Once in Baltimore, the attorney surprises Jack with his inheritance, which is not a pile of money but rather a large trunk … attached to a fully grown Indian elephant named Vera (Tia). At least it’s well-trained.
Stuck with a pachyderm and no way to care for it, Jack calls Mo (Janeane Garofalo), a handler at the San Diego Zoo, who offers to take Vera if Jack can get the elephant there before she heads for Sri Lanka. That’s five days from now. He agrees and so starts Jack and Vera’s zany cross-country adventure.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Naturally, Tia the elephant is the thing and steals just about every scene she’s in. A veteran already by 1996, she’d made appearances in a number of films and television shows, including Operation Dumbo Drop (1995) and Big Top Pee-Wee (1988).
While she was uncredited and mostly in cameo in those movies, here she gets billing and is in nearly every scene, earning genuine laughs for her almost innate sense of comedic timing. Seriously, this jumbo can act. When she goes for a swim, well, also, you can’t help but smile.
But what you really need to tune in for is Matthew McConaughey. Yup, that Matthew McConaughey. He shows up – in an early role – as a crazed trucker named Tip Tucker and the man is straight-up bonkers, going so far off the deep end you want to throw him a rope to reel him back in. The guy is turned up to 11 with the dial stuck, his performance a near reckless display of lunacy it feels like a parody gone bad. You can’t take your eyes off it. What is he doing?
A GREAT MOMENT: Obviously, just about anything with Murray is a sure bet for a laugh, even if the film around him crumbles a bit here and here. When he’s alone with Vera, there is a weird kind of chemistry that feels as if the two had been working together for decades.
There’s a terrific sequence where the pair are cutting through the midwest and they trek through the gorgeous countryside before ending up in a small New Mexican village in a rainstorm. And just in time too, as things are falling apart and a big push is what they people need. Literally.
That said, an early moment when Jack learns the truth about his father is particularly good, especially in a talk with his mother. Although brief, it is the film’s most serious moment and we see a glimpse of the darkness that will come to linger about many of the films Murray will become acclaimed for in the years after this film was released. It’s moving stuff.
THE TALLY: Larger Than Life is not a great movie, but it is a lot of fun. While McConaughey is tonally way off the mark, his wildman buffoonery is cinematic gold simply because the man is now a celebrated Academy Award-winning actor. You can’t not watch this and think, huh? Look for a cameo by Linda Fiorentino as well, playing a circus trainer/entertainer who spends almost all of her screen time on a phone.
While the ending loses some steam and misses a few opportunities for some better gags, the movie is nonetheless entertaining as Murray deadpans his way through it all with what many claimed was phoned-in but is anything but. It can’t be easy sharing the screen with a 8,000 pound elephant, but Murray makes it look easy, effortlessly earning laughs from his attempts at controlling the stubborn animal. It’s what to watch.