With its vague title, the only thing saving the Depression-era “Get Low” from a complete theater walkout is the inimitable Robert Duvall (“Godfather”), and even he seems to be phoning it in.

Get Low

At the Michigan and Rave
Sony

The film opens on an unidentified panting man against a silhouetted house with flames licking furiously at its framework. A jump cut then quickly and jarringly reveals Felix Bush (Duvall), a backwoods hermit who has isolated himself to 40 years of solitude. Bush comes into town with a wad of cash and a plan to organize his own funeral in order to “get low,” a euphemism for dying, and brings the entire town to whispers about his murky past.

The rest of the superstar cast features Sissy Spacek (“Carrie”) as Bush’s former love interest and Bill Murray (“Lost in Translation”) as the humorous, morally ambiguous funeral director. Unfortunately, the two aren’t given much to do other than parade around in their period clothes, throwing off pithy one-liners to the best of their abilities.

The role of ornery, mysterious old man with a heart of gold is not a new one for Duvall, who has filled out his repertoire with typecasts in “We Own the Night,” “Crazy Heart” and “Secondhand Lions.” The only difference is that this time he has to carry the movie all by himself. Duvall manages to grow slowly more endearing to the townspeople, but never any less enigmatic, effectively enshrouding the central plot twist in enough mystery to pull the audience somewhat willingly through the rest of the film. It’s an affecting yet predictable sort of transformation.

If the initial premise is to tell the backstory of this mysterious legend, it doesn’t become clear until about halfway through the film. Everything hinges on the mystery of why the protagonist would choose to isolate himself for 40 years and then come back to throw his own funeral party. It is evident, through the fractured pieces of dialogue and engineered gruffness, “Get Low” is a poor man’s attempt at Coen Brothers tragicomedy. Yet as the film sputters through its grim one-liners as if it were a protracted sketch on “Saturday Night Live,” it stagnates. Not until a revealing dinner at Bush’s cottage does the plot question finally become apparent, but at this point one hour into the film, the audience cannot bring itself to really care. From here, the buildup is antiseptic and the climax does not so much burn out as fizzle.

The folk tale-redemption circuit is a storyline that is ripe to be explored, but cinematographer-turned-director Aaron Schneider (“Two Soldiers”) simply does not have a strong enough grasp of the camera in order to make all the elements gel together. Yet Schneider faithfully maintains a certain authenticity to the period film, liberally dusting its mule-drawn carriages and storefront windows in sepia tones with élan, while twanging fiddle tunes scratch out melodies in the background. But for all its adherence to the 1930s rural Tennessee atmosphere, “Get Low” cannot match its rather small characters to romp in the period playground he has provided for them.

With a run-time far too long for its rather weak storyline, “Get Low” is not colorful or caricatured enough to match up to the big expectations other tall-tale films have already reached – not complicated enough to become a star vehicle for Duvall and not interesting enough for the audience to stay the entire way through.

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