Documentary Review: ‘The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From A Mythical Man’

Review by Jacquelin Hipes

In these divisive times, we can all agree on one thing: Bill Murray is a national treasure.

For years now, wild stories about stolen French fries, afternoon kickball games, and washing dirty dishes at a party have surrounded the veteran comedy actor like a warm, fuzzy aura. Sometimes those stories come with proof, like the couple in Charleston who encountered Murray while taking their engagement pictures. Others sound so outrageous, and yet so maddeningly normal, that it’s difficult to think of them as more than urban legend.

Filmmaker Tommy Avallone has set out to find more evidence of these encounters, along with a deeper meaning for Bill’s behavior and its effect on his fans, in his documentary, The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man. He tracks down witnesses to these “Murray moments” all over the country and as far away as England, giving them a chance to recount the magic in their own words.

Most of the time grainy cellphone video or low-res pictures accompany the anecdotes. Some are more official, like the time Murray read poetry to a group of construction workers building a new poetry library in New York City. Others are charmingly improvised, like the candid shots of him singing along to karaoke at a stranger’s birthday party, or video of him playing tambourine for a local band at a house party during the South by Southwest festival in Austin.

All of these vignettes conspire to deepen an already fond appreciation for the star of Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, and Lost in Translation. As a fan-service-y amalgamation, The Bill Murray Stories serves its purpose well. Yet when Avallone superimposes his own desire for an encounter with his subject, the magic fades slightly.

One interviewee puts it best: when Murray crashes a party, chats up a bartender on his break, or joins a community league kickball game, he’s “not showing up to entertain; [he’s] showing up to be present.” And that’s the fundamental charm of these stories. In every single one we get to witness a seemingly untouchable celebrity genuinely behave like a normal, average human being. Bill Murray might have a knack for comedy or conversation that few others can boast of, but he moves through these encounters without artifice, without ego, without expectation. He just engages for engagement’s sake.

There’s a lesson—or lessons—in that approach to life for each of us. But when we try to articulate it too finely, or try to manufacture it the way Avallone occasionally does, the spell begins to break. The Bill Murray Stories are best experienced the same way their focus moves through life: with a healthy dose of humor, and an aversion to making the moment unnecessarily serious.

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