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He got his start on Saturday Night Live and made his big-screen bones on a succession of comedies that traded heavily on his easygoing, wisecracking charm -- then kicked off the second phase of his film career by sublimating all that charm in a series of roles that took a less-is-more approach to exploring his dramatic side, and earned the best reviews of his career in the process. Most actors wouldn't be able to pull off that kind of transition (see: Carrey, Jim), but then, most actors aren't blessed with equal chops on either side of the funny line. Bill Murray, on the other hand, owns that line -- and with his latest film, City of Ember, opening today, we here at RT thought there was no better time to take a look back at some of his best performances. After all, you never know when he's going to take another prolonged break from filmmaking, right? Get ready to laugh, cry, and pretend Garfield never existed.
Ah, the summer camp movie. It's a genre that's long since been bled dry -- and
it's always provoked a gag reflex in critics -- but once upon a time, comedies
about sex-starved teenagers running wild at camp were all the rage, and 1979's
Meatballs was one of the first (and, not coincidentally, best). While
it certainly isn't Murray's finest 90 minutes, it does have plenty of solid
humor and light charm to go with all the hormonal antics, and it offers an
interesting early glimpse at the development of Murray, screenwriter Harold
Ramis, and director Ivan Reitman. (If you haven't seen it in awhile, Meatballs
is especially fascinating as an example of what passed for raunchy in 1979.)
Although the franchise went on to suffer grevious misuse -- Meatballs II
featured an alien, Meatballs III is something Patrick Dempsey would
probably dearly love to forget, and the fourth installment starred Corey
Feldman and was released direct to DVD -- the original is, as Dennis Schwartz
of Ozus' World Movie Reviews put it, "As easy to handle as drinking lemonade
under a shady tree."
One of Murray's more unusual (and lesser-seen) roles came in this
love story/dramedy hybrid, which found both Murray and Robert De Niro playing
against type: Murray as a Mob boss (and aspiring stand-up comedian), and De
Niro as the meek, bottled-up police detective who saves his life and "earns"
the temporary, uh, use of a prostitute named Glory (played by Uma Thurman). As
you might imagine, Mad Dog and Glory had a bit of a balancing act to
pull off, and according to most critics, it wasn't always successful. Although
many writers expressed pleasant surprise at the suddenly commercial turn from
director Richard McNaughton (then best known for his work on Henry:
Portrait of a Serial Killer), and praised the typically sharp dialogue in
Richard Price's script, ultimately, most critics felt that Mad Dog's
many shifts in style and tone were too much to completely overcome. Still, its
stars earned high marks for their out-of-character performances; Time Out's
Derek Adams, for one, noted that "De Niro seems committed to the part of the
sensitive loner, while Murray all but succeeds in mixing smooth and sinister,
heartfelt and hot-tempered."
There are probably more eminently quotable movies from the early
'80s, but not many, and none of them boast the iconic performance of Bill
Murray as the mumbling, borderline psychotic groundskeeper/groundhog battler
Carl Spackler. Despite being only one member of a very funny ensemble cast
that includes Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, and Ted Knight, Murray
essentially walked away with the movie, thanks in part to an oft-quoted (and
totally improvised) monologue involving the Dalai Lama and the immortal phrase
"So I got that goin' for me, which is nice." Thanks to a hilarious script and
an impressive run at the box office, Caddyshack went on to become one
of the most influential films of the '80s, at least in terms of inspiring
scores of similarly raunchy (but unfailingly inferior) teen comedies, but
critics mostly turned up their noses at the time -- and although the film's
stature has grown in the last 28 years, their slowly building respect is still
expressed grudgingly: DVDTown's John J. Puccio spoke for many of his peers
when he said it has "very few saving graces," but admitted that he harbors "a
guilty pleasure in watching it, at least in bits and pieces."