Murray makes Garfield more than a bad cat movie.

Fitting the Bill 

Murray makes Garfield more than a bad cat movie.

You're a much-loved comedian who just did a low-budget, multi-award-winning film with an acclaimed up-and-coming director. In recent years, thanks in part to your work with the younger, edgier filmmaking set, you're starting to be taken seriously as an actor. You even managed to score an Oscar nomination, something few might have predicted when you were on that late-night comedy show way back when.

So naturally, for your next project, you choose to be the voice of a grotesque computer-generated cat. Not just any cat, mind you, but Garfield, titular star of a newspaper comic strip that hasn't been funny in two decades.

To quote the RZA, from Coffee and Cigarettes, "Damn, that don't sound too good, Bill Murray!"

But here's the really scary part -- the movie's not that bad. Don't misunderstand: Every critical impulse screams that a Garfield movie has to be the worst thing ever. Even in this era of Joel Siegel and Peter Travers, no self-respecting reviewer wants to be the guy who liked Garfield. The cartoon strip has become a metaphor for cynical overmarketing and can't even manage to sustain a compelling plot over three panels these days. And if Garfield does well, Opus, Over the Hedge, Zits and The Boondocks are all waiting in the wings with movie deals of their own.

But it's Bill Murray. And damned if he isn't as entertaining as ever. If it weren't for him, there'd be nothing at all to the film, which forgets all conventional notions of story or characterization and also stars Breckin Meyer and Jennifer Love Hewitt, both of whom were born to play two-dimensional caricatures of boring white people.

Other characters not seen in the strip for quite some time make appearances, albeit not always recognizable ones. The entire CG-budget appears to have been blown on Garfield, so all the other animals are played by live quadrupeds who don't resemble Jim Davis' drawings in the slightest. These include slobbering, mute canine sidekick Odie, dim-bulb kitten Nermal (voiced by David Eigenberg), prissy cat Arlene (Debra Messing), hipster mouse Louis (Nick Cannon) and guard dog Luca (Brad Garrett).

The actors are as disposable as the reed-thin premise, in which a low-level TV show host (Stephen Tobolowsky) kidnaps Odie after seeing that the dumb ol' dog can do some new tricks for the cameras. It's all about Murray, who plays Garfield like he's that old lounge singer from Saturday Night Live. Many of his lines are so head-and-shoulders above the rest of the material that you have to imagine Murray improvised some of them. Murray doesn't sound like he's slumming, either -- he goes all out, whether he's singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" to a captive audience or veering into falsetto while taunting a pack of dogs.

The lasting appeal of the Garfield character stems not only from creator Davis' ability to so clearly define the traits of spoiled cats but also the degree to which those same traits sum up the ugly-American stereotype: the overweight couch potato who does little but watch TV, eat fattening foods and dread the work week. Except that Bill Murray's way funnier than most of America.

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