Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

We need to talk about Bill Murray case file #64: Rock The Kasbah

Movie poster, Rock The Kasbah

My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.

Bill Murray long ago stopped being a mere actor and became something closer to a figure of American folklore. Legends, fables, and unlikely yarns abound about the man and his strange ways. He is renowned for appearing out of nowhere like a magical sprite, getting all the overjoyed and disbelieving folks at a wedding or bar or yoga retreat drunk on homemade moonshine, singing loudly and drunkenly and transcendently for the assembled, then disappearing just as quickly so that he can spread joy elsewhere.

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It’s easy to see why Murray has been elevated to god status. He’s a unique combination of complicated bohemian comic genius and beloved mega-star. In pop culture, Murray is sacrosanct. I had a former co-worker who conceded that she did not like Bill Murray, and my colleagues acted as if she’d said she thought golden retriever puppies were gross and sunsets were garbage. It simply boggled the mind that someone wouldn’t love Bill Murray, let alone not even like him.

In elevating Murray to something superhuman, we have taken away some of his humanity. When his ex-wife accused him of alcoholism, abandonment, infidelity, cruelty, and domestic violence during their divorce, it barely affected Murray’s reputation as the most fun, amazing, and lovable scamp around. To be fair about something deeply, unforgivably unfair, lots of famous men are accused of domestic violence and suffer no consequences whatsoever. We live in a society that is quick to defend wealthy, powerful men and paint a scarlet “G” for “gold digger” on women who accuse beloved actors like Murray or Johnny Depp of domestic abuse and cruelty.

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Murray gets praised for eschewing easy, pandering, and nakedly commercial choices in film roles, and for a long time this reputation was justified. But this decade Murray has quietly devolved into the crowd-pleasing entertainer he spent his early years mocking.

Murray is understandably more comfortable working with friends and frequent collaborators than strangers. That was a fine strategy when the friends and collaborators are Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, and Harold Ramis. That’s a lot more problematic, however, when the friend and collaborator is Mitch Glazer, who got Murray to sign onto 2010’s Passion Play, a wholly embarrassing labor of love that cast Megan Fox as a sideshow performer with angel wings and Murray as a gangster named Happy.

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The next year Murray starred in the period comedy-drama Hyde Park On Hudson, a film notable only for the scene where FDR gets a hand job from his distant cousin. He also appeared in the god-awful Charlie Sheen would-be comeback vehicle A Glimpse Inside The Mind Of Charles Swan III, an abomination whose title is, astonishingly, its least precious aspect.

Murray followed up with a forgettable supporting turn in the underwhelming The Monuments Men and then with St. Vincent, which cast him as a cantankerous old coot who imparts life lessons on the precious moppet he befriends and with whom he forms an unlikely but supportive makeshift family. Oh, and in case you’re worried the filmmakers might overlook a cliché, yes, a plucky single mother and a middle-aged Russian prostitute figure prominently. It wasn’t terrible, but it was mawkish in a way Murray movies are not supposed to be. The losing lineup continued with a turn as the heavy in Cameron Crowe’s disastrous Aloha and then the Mitch Glazer-written Rock The Kasbah, which garnered Murray some of the worst reviews of his career.

Rock The Kasbah opens with Richie Lanz (Murray) in a state of professional disrepair. Once upon a time his name meant something, but these days he’s reduced to fleecing gullible “clients” just to keep the lights on. In desperation, he takes his frustrated would-be protégée/employee/chump Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) on a tour. In an Afghanistan that plays like a pale Xerox of the setting of Casablanca—a dangerous place for scoundrels, war profiteers, rogues, and other no-hopers running out of options—the hard-living, melancholy Ronnie falls in with the wrong crowd. Richie finds himself stranded in the middle of a war zone where he discovers native singer Salima (Leem Lubany) and falls in love with her voice. Complications inevitably ensue that threaten Richie’s path to redemption. Rock The Kasbah’s pseudo-exotic backdrop should be one of its biggest assets, but the film is cursed by an unfortunate glibness. It engages in the issues of Afghan politics and extremist religion just enough to be offensive in its superficiality.

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Early in Rock The Casbah, Ronnie tells Richie that he used to have a wonderful smile, but that the grin he flashed so proudly opposite poorly photoshopped celebrities in the framed pictures on his wall has evaporated. This clumsily establishes the film’s stakes. Rock The Kasbah will be a smile-finding expedition, one with a big old grin at the end of the road. You’ll never guess what facial expression Murray’s character sports in the final scene!

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Rock The Kasbah bizarrely miscasts Murray as a straight version of the smarmy show-business panderer he specialized in early in his career, particularly as the lounge singer and name-dropping show-business “Weekend Update” correspondent he rose to fame playing on Saturday Night Live. Only this time Murray isn’t satirizing the phoniness of show-business pretenders, but romanticizing it.

Whatever its muddled good intentions, Rock The Kasbah reduces its complicated and politically fraught setting to a mere backdrop for the hokey, unearned, and curiously inert professional and personal salvation of a sappy old white man played by a beloved celebrity. Undoubtedly lured by Murray’s pied-piper appeal, Rock The Kasbah has folks like Danny McBride and the aforementioned Deschanel show up just long enough to seem far more interesting than the film’s lead before they disappear mysteriously and permanently.

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In its characters, cast, and themes, as well as its inept and pandering sentimentality, Rock The Kasbah suspiciously repeats St. Vincent. That film also saw fit to give Murray such stock accessories as a semi-love-interest who is a hooker with a heart of gold. In St. Vincent, Naomi Watts devoured scenery as the sex worker, while in Rock The Kasbah Kate Hudson is the minx who appears to our hapless caucasian savior like a mirage of exotic loveliness. It says much about the film’s perversely, condescendingly white take on Afghanistan that it cannot image a more exotic beauty than an unusually flirtatious middle-aged scion of Hollywood royalty like adorable, super-white Kate Hudson. And even though the film’s plot hinges largely on the audience being invested in Richie’s new discovery, the filmmakers seem hard-pressed to feature her in more than a few scenes. Whatever magic Richie sees in her is not apparent in Lubany’s performance.

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In his justly revered performances in classics like Groundhog Day, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Lost In Translation, and Broken Flowers, Murray’s minimalism does an extraordinary amount with very little. That minimalism backfires here, where Murray makes a little go nowhere at all. He seems more low-energy and lost than Jeb Bush after running a marathon. Murray doesn’t appear to be soul-sick or sad or in desperate need of spiritual salvation. He just seems bored. When Murray can’t even smoke pot on screen with any enthusiasm, you know that something has gone wrong.

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Rock The Kasbah desperately wants to be an international crowd-pleaser in the vein of Slumdog Millionairebut about music’s capacity to bring diverse cultures and societies together, to unite the world through the transcendent power of song. Instead, it ends up being about how pop music can make the world blander and more homogenous. Director Barry Levinson (who began his career with Diner, Tin Men, and Rain Man, but has been ice-cold for decades), Glazer, and Murray have made a movie about music for people who don’t know or care about music. Rock The Kasbah is essentially Dad Rock: The Movie. It’s a film that should be bundled into copies of MOJO since it shares the same audience of doddering old men who have not paid attention to popular music for decades but will talk your ear off about what an amazing guitarist Eric Clapton is.

Rock The Kasbah brings to mind late-period Marlon Brando vehicles previously covered for this column, like Free Money. With Free Money, it was obvious that the only reason anyone in the preposterously over-qualified cast (Martin Sheen, Mira Sorvino, Donald Sutherland, Thomas Haden Church) signed on was so that they could meet, and even more excitingly, work, with Marlon Brando. The same dynamic seems to be at play here. I suspect that the only thing that got Bruce Willis, Kate Hudson, Danny McBride, and Zooey Deschanel to appear in thankless roles in an awful film was an opportunity to meet and work with the great Bill Murray.

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They also got to be a part of a beloved icon’s sad late decline. Unfortunately being in a Bill Murray movie seems to mean less and less with each passing year, both for Murray and his all-too-indulgent costars and public. The public’s love for Murray may be bottomless and unconditional, but that doesn’t mean he should spend so much time on screen aggressively testing that affection.

Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure

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