Bill Murray has become so preternaturally cool that he can make virtually anything watchable. That’s good news for Rock the Kasbah, the latest comedy from Rain Man and Wag the Dog director Barry Levinson, which features Murray as a down-on-his-luck music manager who discovers a promising singer in a rural Afghanistan cave, and which may be the sloppiest mainstream American comedy to receive a theatrical release this year. So carelessly constructed that it features numerous characters and plot threads that are introduced and then cast aside as if on the whim of a spiteful editor, the film vainly lurches about in search of basic direction, as well as laughs, and comes up empty-handed. And yet, in spite of those severe shortcomings, Rock the Kasbah remains fitfully entertaining, if only because it’s shrewd enough to consistently put its star front and center—and thus prop itself up on his peerless, inimitable, magnetism.
That Murray can make a fiasco like Rock the Kasbah tolerable is further testament to his badass-slacker aura. Murray’s combination of sad-sack melancholy, wiseass impertinence, nonchalant confidence, and snarky sarcasm is so irresistible that he’s become a virtual brand unto himself, and it’s not only the main selling point for Levinson’s fish-out-of-water tale—whose marketing campaign featured a concert poster-inspired one sheet plastered with Murray’s mug—but also the entire reason for the film’s existence. Without Murray tethering everything together with a series of unruffled one-liners and exasperated outbursts about the sheer insanity of his West Coast character being stuck in the middle of a rural Afghanistan tribal war, the proceedings would simply collapse in a heap of misbegotten diversions and half-formed plot threads.
Of course, Murray established his unimpeachable A-list credentials decades ago, beginning with his work on Saturday Night Live and continuing with a string of ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s comedy classics (Caddyshack, Stripes, Meatballs, Ghostbusters, Scrooged, What About Bob?, Groundhog Day, and Kingpin, to name a few). Despite his thinning hair, a face creased with increasingly deep lines, and a growing paunch, Murray is an even bigger star today than he was during that nominal heyday, thanks in large part to his willingness to branch out into more dramatic territory, and to color his unflappable-goofball persona in more rueful, solemn shades.
That transition began in earnest with Wes Anderson’s 1998 masterpiece Rushmore, in which Murray’s distressed drollness as a wealthy mentor—and, later, romantic rival—to Jason Schwartzman’s prep school prodigy provided a new perspective on Murray’s trademark shtick. It was not only a career-defining role, but a career-remaking one, opening the door for the comedian to explore subsequent misfit characters from a more subdued, dejected place, be it in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), or Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (2005). In all of those films, Murray managed to turn his typically wacko antics inside-out, locating the hurt and sorrow lurking beneath the jester-ish façade that marked not only his biggest Hollywood hits, but also his costumed-for-maximum-outrageousness appearances (as a jockey! A New York Giants kicker! Peter Pan! Liberace!) on The Late Show with David Letterman.
Over the past two decades, Murray has managed to segue into more “mature” fare without sacrificing his goofier, more absurdist tendencies. The result has been that he projects wisdom and ridiculousness, as well as enough self-deprecation to also appear down-to-earth. Thus, he comes across as the one star who might be legitimately fun to hang out with—a fact reinforced by Murray’s contribution to Jim Jarmusch’s 2003 anthology film Coffee and Cigarettes. In the vignette “Delirium,” Wu-Tang Clan members RZA and GZA are drinking herbal tea in a café, only to be stunned by the revelation that their waiter is none other than Bill Murray. What follows is a surreal conversation about the hazards of nicotine and caffeine, and how to get rid of a nasty smoker’s cough. However, the particulars of their chat are secondary to GZA’s climactic exclamation, “Bill Motherfucking Murray!”, which is hilarious precisely because his excitement over meeting the actor (whom RZA and GZA constantly refer to by his full name) seems so natural, and understandable.
If Coffee and Cigarettes dramatized the sheer joy that might come from actually getting to spend a few minutes with the star, Murray’s more recent in-the-wild cameos cemented that notion.
Whether working as a minor league baseball game ticket-taker, bartending at 2010’s South by Southwest festival, popping up at a stranger’s bachelor party, or crashing a couple’s wedding photo shoot, Murray proved himself a funnyman who, even in his downtime, clearly loves bringing joy and humor to others. In these video clips, which quickly went viral, Murray seems to not only be in the right place at the right time, but to relish the opportunity to connect with fans on a personal level. While he rarely gives formal press interviews or embarks on lengthy promotional tours for his works, these unforced encounters revealed him to be that rare Hollywood luminary who’s at once larger than life and approachable.
Even in a dud like Rock the Kasbah (or last year’s overly mushy St. Vincent), Murray manages to acquit himself through sheer, irresistible charisma. Standing atop a rural Afghanistan home in Levinson’s film, while flanked by gunmen as Bob Dylan croons his way through “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” on the soundtrack, Murray strikes a pose that blends out-of-his-element discomfort and unflustered self-assurance to pitch-perfect effect. It’s that force of personality that sets him apart from his numerous comedic contemporaries, and which now defines his every move, both on-camera and off.
Thus, when Netflix recently released the trailer for the forthcoming A Very Murray Christmas—an exclusive, Rat Pack-y holiday variety show special for the streaming service that’s directed by Sofia Coppola—it wasn’t shocking to discover that Murray had successfully recruited fellow superstars George Clooney, Chris Rock, Miley Cyrus, Amy Poehler, and Michael Cera for the endeavor. Rather, what was amazing was the realization that they all seemed hipper for agreeing to participate in this lark, and moreover, for merely being in his presence. Which just goes to show: No matter the company he’s keeping, Bill Murray is now always the coolest guy in the room.