1. I love Bill Murray. You love Bill Murray. We all love Bill Murray. We love him on talk shows. We love him when he pops up in random places, doing random things. But we haven’t collectively loved a new Bill Murray movie in a long time. Sure, we’ve celebrated him in small roles: Zombieland, Moonrise Kingdom, even Get Smart. But as the focal point? Hyde Park on Hudson was terrible. The Life Aquatic is everyone’s least favorite Wes Anderson movie. And now, Rock the Kasbah might just be the worst yet. It’s a horribly misguided idea that never really gets off the ground and yet still finds a way to crash-land, but even criticizing its obvious flaws misses the central, sad point: This movie has too much Bill Murray in it.
2. The key to the guy’s resurgence over the last 20 years—the transition from a likable movie star to America’s Spirit Animal—has been his elusiveness. You can never quite get a firm grip on Bill Murray, which is the way he clearly likes it: The stories of film producers and directors just trying to get ahold of him are as legendary at this point as his wacky random appearances. But it’s the same deal with his films. He rarely takes lead roles anymore—I count just six in the 17 years since Rushmore, and that’s only if you count the animated Osmosis Jones— and this has benefited him greatly. You’re always anticipating—and left wanting—more. But he’s able to pop in, give one of his patented reaction shots (no one does them better), and maybe frown a few times or look genuinely sad, and it all works. We rarely spend much time in his presence. But with Rock the Kasbah, we spend the whole movie with him, and that’s clearly too long. This is an empty character that he attempts to fill in with flailing schtick. And he’s the last actor in the world we want to see resorting to schtick.
3. Murray plays Richie Lanz, a burned-out manager of failed music acts who takes his “star” client, a drowsy lounge singer who also serves as his receptionist (Zooey Deschanel), to Afghanistan for a USO tour. His client freaks out, and steals his money and his passport, and he’s thus stuck in a war zone, trying to get out and maybe still make a buck in the process. While he’s transporting weapons to a Pashtun village (don’t ask), he comes across a female singer with an otherworldly voice (Leem Lubany) and tries to book her on Afghan Star, the country’s version of American Idol. He ends up sleepwalking into a series of dangerous situations he can’t quite grasp the gravity of while crossing paths with a professional soldier (Bruce Willis), two opportunistic Americans getting rich off all the death (Danny McBride and Scott Caan), and a glamorous prostitute with, all together now, A Heart Of Gold (Kate Hudson). Meanwhile, while all these white people talk about their problems, a country burns around them, a fact this film only sporadically notices.
4. This movie was probably never a good idea. There’s maybe a “Good Morning, Kabul!” vibe to catch if you hit it just right, if a clown like Lanz shows up and provides a brief respite from the misery around him while coming away with a greater understanding of the true horror and futility of war. But this isn’t that movie. Kasbah uses its local conflicts—the village appalled by a woman in their midst singing and dancing on television, the drug trade, the random bands of traveling sects raping and pillaging throughout the desert, the poor citizens ravaged by decades of bloodshed—as a backdrop for its dumb American problems. No offense to Richie Lanz, but who gives a shit whether you can one make one last big score? There are people being burned alive here. The movie believes its central issues—whether the female singer will be ostracized by her village and her father for going on Afghan Star, and whether that conflict will lead to a war within the village between competing sects—can be resolved by this burned-out old man and his “negotiating skills.” It actually believes we will find this funny! This is a movie that tries, with a straight face, to wrap up all its plot lines with, I swear to God, someone singing Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train.” And then everything is totally fine in Afghanistan!
5. This movie is bad all the way through, but I cannot lie: Murray is its biggest problem. A few years back, he talked about wanting to do more of a straight comedy than some of the bittersweet or dramatic walk-on roles of the last couple of decades, and I guess this is it. And it’s only distinguishable from some of the awful old by-the-numbers comedies he was making until Rushmore came and saved him—Larger Than Life, The Man Who Knew Too Little—in that its very premise is offensive and stupid rather than just stupid. Murray’s strength as an actor and comedian has always been reacting rather than forcing the comedy: His best comedies where he’s the lead—Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Quick Change—feature him as the “normal” person reacting to chaos rather than causing it. (I will grant that What About Bob? is a notable exception here.)
But here, when he has a farcical, poorly conceived, thinly sketched character like this to play, he’s completely lost. And it’s downright disorienting and distressing to see Bill Murray completely lost: It is the precise opposite of comedy. There was a time, 25 years ago, when he could make a terrible comedy and no one would notice—it would just pass us by, and we’d move on. But now, he’s not so much a comedian or an actor as he is an American Icon. Rock the Kasbah is awful, but it won’t make enough of a dent to put that status in any particular jeopardy. Still: It wouldn’t hurt to run sprinting in the opposite direction, regardless, just to be safe. You don’t want to see him like this.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.