By Jonathan Kiefer

True story: Somewhere in the South during the Great Depression, an old man lived alone in the woods; one day, for reasons unknown, he decided to host his own funeral.

Now, he has a movie, which asks: By what process does a man become a reclusive codger? How might he unbecome one? Will a clean shave and an ironic, yet redemptive, ceremony be enough? The questions are more or less rhetorical in

Get Low

—on account of Robert Duvall playing the old man.

But there is another question: How should an audience respond when a performance comes so naturally to a great actor that he renders it superfluous?

They call him Felix Bush. They call him other things, too—not nice things. He has not endeared himself to his community. It’s already the talk of the town when Felix comes through at all; his quest for a living funeral just makes matters stranger. It’s fitting that the only person of any use to him is a slightly seedy undertaker (Bill Murray), just as it’s intriguing that Felix’s reappearance doesn’t escape the notice of a former lover (Sissy Spacek). Given the least to work with, she’s also the least showy of this cast, with the sharpest sense of how to fill a silence. Meanwhile, Murray’s earnest family-man assistant, a placeholder, is played with infectious warmth and directness by Lucas Black.

Admittedly, it’s a delicious setup; Get Low very considerately takes pains to establish its potential for greatness. Unfortunately, it then settles for patness. The script, by Chris Provenzano, Scott Seeke and

C Gaby Mitchell, has its honor, which first-time director Aaron Schneider does not risk offending. Therefore his scenes are ploddingly paced and highly redolent of sentimental Southern Gothic schlock.

At least the slowness allows time to reflect on how much great work Duvall has done since he got started in movies nearly half a century ago as To Kill a Mockingbird’s Boo Radley, another Southern rural pariah. He’s still got it, we’re meant to think. But we had no reason to suspect otherwise—until now.

“I want everybody to come who’s got a story to tell about me,” Felix tells the mortician. Later, it’s revealed—and belabored—that he has a story of his own. It’s the story of something awful from way back when, and the reason he’s lived alone in the woods all these years.

We’re still only a few degrees away from Hallmark here, as David Boyd’s cinematography cleverly conceals the requisite sepia in autumnal earth tones. But that’s just how Get Low goes: It takes some inherently lovely textures—Duvall’s depth, Murray’s wit, the lonely twang of a Dobro on the soundtrack—and turns them into something much too smooth.

Maybe Get Low was better off as merely a true story.

Get Low

Directed by Aaron Schneider

With Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray and Lucas Black

UA DeVargas

102 min.