'The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man': Film Review | SXSW 2018

Chris Raab
An enjoyable but hardly essential pop culture exploration.

Tommy Avallone's doc talks to some of the lucky bystanders who had close encounters with Bill Murray.

We've all heard the folklore. Some dude's having his bachelor party when Bill Murray sneaks in, ready to drink a toast and dish out advice for the groom. A drunken kid at a college party stumbles into the kitchen and finds Murray, who knows nobody in the apartment, doing the dishes. And so on. With stories this divertingly random popping up on a weekly or monthly basis, a low-budget doc or two was inevitable. Tommy Avallone does as well as can be expected in The Bill Murray Stories, investigating the facts behind the legends and, of course, trying to engineer a "random" encounter of his own. Though many Murray lovers would say it's best to leave his antics in the realm of urban legend, the doc will likely attract some attention when it finds its way to video outlets.

A quick prelude establishes, for any viewer who's never seen him on a talk show, that in the years that saw Murray's film performances grow more restrained and melancholy, he has become colorfully unpredictable offscreen. And if his Dada-court-jester routine worked wonders in the waning years of David Letterman's show, how much more astonishing would it be on, say, the streets of Charleston, South Carolina?

That's Avallone's first destination as he travels to meet ordinary folks whose lives were brightened by Murray encounters. There he meets Raheel, the wedding photographer whose work was reportedly "photo-bombed" by the comedian. As it turns out, Murray didn't photo-bomb anybody: When the couple saw him lingering behind the photographer, they invited him to join them, and he did.

That's the biggest fact/fiction disconnect Avallone finds in the stories he investigates. Happily, some of the encounters contain enough charm that the doc needn't play mythbuster to entertain — like the one in Austin, where an off-duty bartender named Trevor found himself idling for a while beside Murray, watching TV and chatting about life. The evening took them in different directions, but later that night, Trevor was astonished to learn that Murray was back at the bar, asking for him by name.

Elsewhere in the same town, Murray showed up at an unofficial SXSW event, playing roadie to a band for their house-party gig. He wound up playing tambourine for them as well, and when cops were called by noise-sensitive neighbors, they were convinced to join the fun.

Journalists have been spinning magazine articles (and even books) out of these encounters for years, and Avallone talks to a few, mostly getting some pop-psychology stuff tying Murray sightings to themes from his movies. Sometimes the analysis rings true, especially where Harold Ramis' unexpectedly deep film Groundhog Day is concerned. Avallone doesn't have to look too hard at the performer's bio to tie his surprise appearances to his training in improv comedy with Del Close. Though it doesn't dig into his spiritual beliefs, the movie hints at them with a quote in which the actor says of surprising strangers, "It's what I'd want someone to do for me — just wake me the hell up."

At some point, all the analysis drains the Bill Murray-ness out of these delightful encounters, whose inexplicability is presumably key to their charm. Avallone seems to acknowledge this obliquely toward the end as the director stalks Murray at a baseball game and realizes this is not the path to a Bill Murray story of his own. "I was trying to control the experience," he admits. But still, he can't resist rushing over to the actor and asking for a photo — the exact opposite of the kind of celebrity-worship experience Murray seems intent on having with his fellow humans.

Production company: Double Windsor Films
Director-Editor: Tommy Avallone
Screenwriter: Tommy Avallone, Max Paolucci
Producers: Max Paolucci, Raymond Esposito, Kevin Sisti Jr., Derrick Kunzer
Executive producer: Glen Zipper
Director of photography: Derrick Kunzer
Composer: Ryan Petrillo
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)

69 minutes