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Duvall’s Hermit Attends His Own Funeral; Hefner’s Legacy: Film

Zac Efron stars as the title character in the romantic drama "Charlie St. Cloud." In this emotionally charged story, Charlie begins a romantic journey in which he embraces the past while discovering the purpose of life and love. Photographer: Diyah Pera/Universal Pictures via Bloomberg

In 1938, an eccentric 74-year-old Tennessee farmer named Felix “Bush” Breazeale decided he wanted to attend his own funeral. So he planned a pre-emptive service that attracted national publicity and drew 12,000 people, including reporters, photographers and hot dog vendors.

The “funeral party” briefly turned Felix into a celebrity. Robert Ripley, the creator of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, wrote about him in his syndicated column and brought him to New York for a radio interview. Felix lived five more years and was buried after a much smaller service that, regrettably, he couldn’t attend.

This curious bit of Americana has been turned into “Get Low,” a tender, whimsical film featuring a brilliant performance by Robert Duvall. Screenwriters Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell have fleshed out the real story with fictional characters and events, and the result is a folkloric tale brimming with Southern charm and color.

In the movie, Felix is a bearded backwoods hermit who’s the subject of dark rumors, including one that he killed a man in a fistfight. One day he rides his horse-drawn wagon into town and offers the funeral-home director (Bill Murray) and his young assistant (Lucas Black) a wad of cash to organize a service where everyone who’s heard a story about Felix can tell it to his face.

Unrequited Love

Felix himself has an amazing story to tell involving a lost love who happened to be the sister of an old flame (Sissy Spacek), now a widow who never understood why her passion for Felix was unrequited.

Director Aaron Schneider, making his feature debut after winning an Oscar for his short film “Two Soldiers,” lets the yarn unwind at a leisurely pace well suited to the material. Murray’s cynical, wisecracking salesman showcases his ability to mix the serious with the comical, while Black’s naivete and Spacek’s warmth provide artful contrast.

Still, this is Duvall’s picture. Though his dialogue is minimal and his movements are spare, he grabs our attention whenever he’s on screen. Duvall doesn’t try to make Felix lovable, or even likable. Felix is sometimes ornery and always stubborn, but he has a wounded heart that everyone can relate to.

“Get Low,” from Sony Pictures Classics, opens tomorrow in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: ***1/2

‘Hugh Hefner’

For all those boys and men who never realized Playboy contained words as well as pictures, a new documentary reminds us that Hugh Hefner is more than just a magazine publisher who revolutionized sexual attitudes.

“Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel,” makes the case that the pipe-puffing hedonist has also been a fervent supporter of free speech, racial equality, women’s rights (despite criticism that Playboy treated them as sexual objects) and controversial artists such as Dick Gregory and Pete Seeger.

Writer/director Brigitte Berman explains how the product of a conservative Midwest family grew up to be the most influential proponent of sexual freedom in the 20th century. While the film includes interviews with Hefner’s critics, including feminist Susan Brownmiller and singer/conservative Pat Boone, most of the talking heads are admirers and friends of the Playboy founder.

Sammy, Dizzy

The best part is the archival footage from Hefner’s two TV series, which ran from 1959-60 and 1969-70. Clips of Lenny Bruce, Sammy Davis Jr., Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, Gore Vidal and Country Joe and the Fish reveal Hef’s determination to provide a national platform for non-mainstream artists.

The film also features extensive comments from Hefner, casually attired in one of his trademark smoking jackets. He’s 84 now and, though he still has a bevy of young girlfriends, Playboy is clearly past its prime and struggling to compete in the Internet age.

This two-hour film might strike some as hagiography and it could have used some trimming. Like Hefner, though, it never fails to entertain.

“Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel,” from Phase 4 Films, opens tomorrow in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: ***

‘Charlie St. Cloud’

On the brink of death following a car accident that kills his younger brother Sam, teenage sailor Charlie St. Cloud is revived by a paramedic. Nothing, however, can breathe life into “Charlie St. Cloud,” a sappy supernatural drama about how the survivor deals with the crushing loss.

Encountering his brother’s ghost in the woods after his funeral, Charlie (Zac Efron) promises to meet him there every day at dusk to play catch. Instead of heading to Stanford on a sailing scholarship (did you know such a thing existed?), Charlie stays in his small Pacific Northwest hometown and works as a caretaker at a local cemetery.

Five years later, when he falls in love with a high-school classmate who’s also an avid sailor (Amanda Crew), Charlie must decide whether to keep his promise to his brother (Charlie Tahan) or move on with his life. Cue the violins.

Director Burr Steers, working from a script by Craig Pearce and Lewis Colick, presses too many tearjerker buttons in this adaptation of Ben Sherwood’s novel. And that’s a crying shame.

“Charlie St. Cloud,” from Universal Pictures, opens tomorrow across the U.S. Rating: *1/2

What the Stars Mean:

****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
(No stars)    Worthless

(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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