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Georgia gorgeous backdrop to superb acting in 'Get Low'

Staff Photo: Sony Classics
 Robert Duvall, left, Lucas Black and Bill Murray, right, star in “Get Low.” 

Staff Photo: Sony Classics Robert Duvall, left, Lucas Black and Bill Murray, right, star in “Get Low.” 

Get Low (PG-13)

3 stars out of 4

It’s odd, ironic and more than a little cruel that on the one day people we know are most likely to say something nice about us, we’ll never hear it. We’ll be there — stiff, cold, horizontal and in a box — but we’ll never be privy to the post-mortem accolades falling from the lips of those who knew us best.

Quite sure he’s about to die — or, as he puts it, get low — Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) wants to attend his own funeral while still breathing. He’s also certain no one there will have anything good to say about him; he’s not the warm and cuddly type. Scraggly, irascible and trigger happy, the textbook curmudgeon Felix has been a hermit for the last 40 years.

Smarter than he initially lets on, Felix doesn’t wish to hear those flowery and often exaggerated testimonials usually uttered at other funerals. He wants the truth — the ugly, soul-bearing truth. He seems almost desperate to invite ridicule and scorn and is willing to pay a pretty penny in order to do so. He feels terrible about something and hopes someone somewhere will come out of the woodwork and make it public so he won’t have to. The guy is in extreme pain.

Felix’s unorthodox plan couldn’t come at a better time for funeral home director Frank Quinn (Bill Murray). Perplexed as to why people aren’t dying with the frequency he would like, Frank views Felix as an eccentric codger, but also one with scads of rumpled money who might require some minor hand-holding and finesse maintenance.

Matching Felix in the intelligence department, Chicago native Frank wisely turns over the PR duties to his underling Buddy (Lucas Black), a native of the sleepy southern town they share who might have had a childhood run-in with Felix. Married with child, Buddy is ethically inflexible (something Frank is not) and Felix recognizes him as a straight-shooting kindred spirit. The pair slowly develops an uneasy, mutually respectful alliance.

Uneasy could also describe Felix’s relationships with the recently widowed Mattie (Sissy Spacek) and Charlie (Bill Cobbs), a preacher from up north. Both possess sketchy details regarding Felix’s secret but neither knows the full story and each remains tight-lipped about it.

Taking place in what looks like the tail end of the Great Depression, “Get Low” was shot last summer in Newnan, Dallas, Crawfordville, Powder Springs and Atlanta and rarely have such quaint vistas looked so pristine. As with “The Joneses” from earlier this year, Georgia provides a gorgeous backdrop for “Get Low.”

Oscar-winning (“Two Soldiers”) short-film director Aaron Schneider’s first feature is aesthetically superb, but is slightly lacking with the final wrinkle plot reveal. It is moving and heartbreaking but doesn’t deliver the kind of smacked-upside-the-head-whammy the build-up suggests. After the final bit of information is spoken, we realize this is more of a “journey” and less than a “destination” story.

What Schneider and his two screenwriters lack in payoff acumen is more than made up for with the director’s veteran-level prowess with his actors. Every performer — including bit players with just one or two lines — is spot-on spectacular. It would be so easy for these characters to fall prey to Southern Gothic caricature, yet it never happens. Even when given huge comic portals, Murray manages to keep his trademark droll delivery in check.

If you’re someone who normally bolts for the exit as soon as the closing credits start, don’t do that here. The theme song — Alison Krauss’ “Lay My Burden Down” — is an achingly bittersweet ballad that fully accomplishes in four or so minutes what the movie itself couldn’t quite do in the previous 100. (Sony Classics)