I recently wrote a piece about how Bill Murray has transcended being a mere living legend and has become a urban myth, and I stand behind every word of that. Unfortunately, Bill often makes choices involving films that make it very hard to support the films themselves, and “Rock The Kasbah” is a perfect example of that.
Mitch Glazer is one of those people who appear to be able to get Bill Murray to actually pick up the phone, and he's a credited co-writer on “Scrooged,” a film that features one of my favorite Bill Murray performances. Unfortunately, he's also responsible for writing and directing “Passion Play,” one of the worst things Murray has ever been part of, and so walking into “Rock The Kasbah,” I had my fingers crossed that Glazer would be able to tap the side of his friend that has made him such an icon for the past forty years.
Nope. Not even close.
Instead, Glazer's made another movie that adheres too closely to the Bill Murray Template without doing anything to disrupt or elevate it. By now, Murray has basically generated an entire genre of films about a disreputable shlub who spends 2/3 of the film thumbing his nose at societal convention, only to rise to the occasion and become a better man at the exact moment the script needs him to do it. One of the reasons I didn't understand last year's (brief) Oscar talk about “St. Vincent” was because it was another example of that film, made somewhat indifferently. And while this template allows Murray to be Murray, it does not particularly challenge him, and a bored Bill Murray is no good for anyone, least of all Bill Murray.
If you see the ads for this film, you'd probably think Zooey Deschanel, Bruce Willis, Danny McBride, and Kate Hudson all have the same size roles in the film as Murray, but that is very misleading. Deschanel is in about twelve minutes of the film at the beginning, then exits stage right and never returns. McBride and Scott Caan show up for two quick scenes. Hudson and Willis are in a little bit more of the film, but for the most part, this is Bill Murray from start to finish, along with a Middle Eastern cast that is primarily lesser known. Fahim Fazil is a hard-working actor who does a ton of voice-over work and who has been onscreen in basically anything set in the Middle East since 2005. Arian Moayed is the one who spends the most time with Murray, and he's an Iranian/Persian actor who has been working hard, especially on TV, for the last decade or so.
Then there's Leem Lubany. She plays Salima, a young girl who Murray's character hears singing in a cave. He decides to get her a spot on “Afghan Star,” even though it is culturally forbidden for a woman to sing or dance in public. Murray plays Richie Lanz, who has coasted for decades on his reputation as a rock tour manager, a reputation that is largely fabricated. When he gets an offer for Ronnie (Deschanel), one of his clients, to play a USO tour of Afghanistan, he takes it, not really sure what to expect.
It's strange watching this film unfold, and I had to remind myself several times that Barry Levinson directed it. There was a time when this sort of thing was second nature to him, and the director of “Good Morning, Vietnam” or “Tin Men” or “Wag The Dog” could have totally nailed this. Levinson, sadly, is no longer that director, and most of the film just lays there, poorly staged, with no sense of comic pace or timing. And while “Good Morning, Vietnam” manages to expertly capture the way a wise-ass slowly grows a sense of moral conscience, this film just lurches along episodically, not a single scene as funny as it's meant to be, until they engineer a giant phony epiphany for him involving Cat Stevens, a hooker with a heart of gold, and a bunch of fake bullets.
Walking out of the film, I might have given it a C+ or a C based purely on the fumes of Murray's better work that are present here, but the more I've thought about it, the more infuriating it is to see something this lazy and familiar from Murray at this point. If there's anyone whose persona is dependent on never feeling too settled, too complacent, it is Murray, but the more he makes himself willfully unavailable to filmmakers, the more he finds himself doing these “favors” that only seem to work in one direction. This might actually be worse overall than “Aloha,” Murray's other “what the hell is he thinking?” film this year.
While I would normally have more to say about the film, a movie as indifferent to the basics of storytelling and character as this one really doesn't deserve any more effort than it is willing to offer. So on that note, I'll just say that “Rock The Kasbah” does not. At all. And it's a damn shame.
“Rock The Kasbah” is in theaters Friday.