Bill Murray’s Much Maligned ‘Garfield’ Deserves an Apology

20th Century Fox /Everett Collection
20th Century Fox /Everett Collection
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Bill Murray is responsible for one of Hollywood’s best pieces of apocrypha—an anecdote so hilarious that we’re better off believing it than not.

In a 2010 interview with GQ, Murray told the story of how he ended up voicing Garfield in 2004’s widely panned adaptation of the long-running comic strip.

“I thought it would be kind of fun, because doing a voice is challenging, and I’d never done that,” he said in the free-wheeling interview. “Plus, I looked at the script, and it said, ‘So-and-so and Joel Coen.’ And I thought: Christ, well, I love those Coens!”

Months later, when he went to record his lines, he was aghast at how bad the dialogue was. When he asked to watch the movie, to see what he was working with, he was even more shocked: “I kept saying, ‘Who the hell cut this thing? Who did this? What the fuck was Coen thinking?’”

And here is the infamous kicker to this story: “And then they explained it to me: It wasn’t written by that Joel Coen.”

No, Joel Cohen—with an “H”—is the co-writer of the live-action/animated-hybrid film that has become one of Murray’s more infamous projects. Its lasting legacy is this self-deprecating tale of the worst kind of miscommunication, the reason behind the maxim, “Assuming makes an ass out of you and me.” That this story, which the film’s crew later disputed, was so funny even six years after the film came out—and is so indelible today, 20 years later—speaks to just how much people hated Garfield: The Movie.

Breckin Meyer sits at a desk while Garfield lounges nearby in a still from ‘Garfield: The Movie’
©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

But how many of those people actually watched it? After watching The Garfield Movie, the cat’s abominable new theatrical film, I decided it was high time to check out his infamous inaugural feature.

And y’know what? It’s not half-bad! It’s certainly not a Coen movie—most lines of dialogue, of which there must be thousands, land with an eye-rolling thud, and the story is bereft of any thematic weight. But, then, so are the Garfield comics for the most part—three-panel stories whose punchlines usually revolve around their apathetic antihero’s appetite. But Murray’s performance is laden with Garfield’s appealing brand of cynicism, selfishness, and misanthropy, making the movie feel like the adaptation of Garfield we deserve, if not the one we wanted.

‘The Garfield Movie’ Wastes His Ninth Life

Garfield follows Garfield (Murray) coming to terms with his new roommate, Odie the dog—an adorable live-action dog, even though Garfield is animated. Maybe that’s because he never speaks, but all the other animals are also live-action, even though they speak. It’s weird, but it’s better not to challenge Garfield’s internal logic. The point is that Garfield, naturally, resents Odie stealing their owner Jon’s (Breckin Meyer) attention away from him. Despite Odie’s immediate affection for Garfield, Garfield plots to get Odie kicked out of the house. When this ends up working too well, and Odie gets dognapped, Garfield endeavors to find the lost dog and bring him home.

This is actually a genuinely sweet story, especially compared to the totally insipid, smartphone-addled premise of 2024’s Garfield Movie. Murray sells Garfield’s slow transformation from narcissistic only child to doting older brother well, maintaining both his own and the cat’s distinct brand of snark.

And that snark is even funny sometimes! “Sometimes,” because with a script this incessantly wordy, the hit ratio is doomed from the start. But this is a movie that understands Garfield is more than just lasagna and a hatred for Mondays. One scene has him begrudgingly catching a mouse for Jon—“I don’t do the chase thing”—only to reveal that he was keeping the mouse inside of his cheek. He reaps the glory of seeming like he actually got off his lazy butt and accomplished something, when he actually is friends with the mouse, who agreed to play it cool for some cookie-based quid pro quo.

The whole scene feels ripped from a comic strip, with Jon haplessly running around to smash a mouse that his own cat won’t bother with. Jon says something predictable about how Garfield is useless, and Garfield has a snappy retort only the audience can hear. In the end, he does something silly to placate his owner and amuse us. It’s textbook stuff, in a way that may strike viewers as boring. But compared to the new movie, in which the balance is tweaked way in the other direction—Garfield rarely puts himself above others and has surprisingly unfettered affection for Odie and Jon—2004’s Garfield feels refreshingly familiar.

Garfield: A Fat, Lazy Cat Who Is the Epitome of America

Most of all, Murray’s familiar voice grounds the character into something believable, even palatable in the face of a motor-mouthed script. It’s hardly hilarious, but it is frequently amusing, almost completely thanks to the idiosyncratic comedian. While Murray is no Lorenzo Music, the legend who voiced Garfield in the fan-favorite Garfield and Friends cartoon, he does a good job at capturing the lackadaisical quality that makes Garfield iconic and lovable. And he’s also no Chris Pratt, the new movie’s voice of Garfield—a performance so indistinct, it’s unclear if Pratt even knew he was supposed to be playing Garfield as opposed to some other cartoon character. It should go without saying that that’s a compliment, considering Pratt has been phoning it in ever since he left Parks and Recreation.

Murray is Garfield’s linchpin, which, in retrospect, makes his repeated disses kind of a bummer. One of Zombieland’s most memorable moments is when the cameo-ing, Zombified Murray is about to die, and he admits that his only regret is “Garfield, maybe.” And perhaps one can’t begrudge him that, because the movie was trashed to high heaven—which, it should be said, didn’t hurt its box office one bit; the movie made more than $200 million on a budget of $50 million But Murray was often singled out as the film’s saving grace, the bright spot in a film with an abysmal 14 percent Rotten Tomatoes score.

I’d push back against some of the criticisms of the movie itself, though. Richard Roeper said it lacked energy—but who expects energy from freakin’ Garfield? Maybe the movie is not “dyspeptic, laconic, or subversively attuned to the inner lives of animals,” as the Austin Chronicle argues the comics are. But I also think we’re giving Garfield comics a bit too much credit there—using the word “dyspeptic” to describe it is almost self-parodically pretentious. (That review does make a funny point about how violent the movie is, which I guess is actually a Garfield hallmark, considering the absurd violence of The Garfield Movie.) And yes, the movie slathers on the product placement and has a horrible extended dance sequence set to a Black-Eyed Peas song. This is not high art, and the more open-minded viewer can take that brief suffering in stride.

Breckin Meyer and Jennifer Love Hewitt sit in a car with Garfield splattered against the window in a still from ‘Garfield: The Movie’
©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

Perhaps I’m a little kinder to this film because I’m watching it 20 years later, and only because I watched another Garfield movie that I deemed much worse. Garfield 2004 hardly counts among the highs of Bill Murray’s career. But who the heck would expect it to? We have “so bad, it’s good,” for a reason; and while I don’t even know if I’d venture so far as to say it qualifies, it certainly isn’t “so bad, it’s bad.”

If nothing else, it’s telling that Murray still talked about it six years later: Garfield is memorable, and you can’t say that for a lot of movies of its ilk—or even of its franchise.

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