If you stay in the game long enough, you eventually have to be called a living legend. The expression is basically meaningless though. It’s like an honorary degree. It has no actual value. Usually, it just means you’re old. But Bill Murray is one of the 8 or 9 people actually deserving of the title, and here’s why: he is incapable of anonymity. He’s a roving, magical one-man party. People lose their minds when they see him. Every single thing he does in public goes viral. He has powers of crowd control no other 65-year-old actor has.
And he’s the last comedian from the first five years of Saturday Night Live who can still lead a movie. Dan Aykroyd, God bless him, apparently spends his days selling vodka. John Belushi is dead. Gilda Radner is dead. Chevy Chase died in a helicopter accident after the release of Christmas Vacation. And Steve Martin is way too good at the banjo to mess with acting anymore. That makes Bill Murray the last big Del Close/Second City Chicago/Saturday Night Live when they still did drugs alumnus in the game today.
The early days of Saturday Night Live have finally passed out of plodding counterculture history and into actual history. Because of that, Bill Murray’s mere existence becomes a bit miraculous. He’s old enough to be dead. He’s a hundred and twenty in 1970s Chicago comedian years. You worry about him, like you worry about your one nice uncle who’s got a big personality and a warm heart but keeps doing dangerous, unhealthy things at family get-togethers. Every day I see Bill Murray’s name trending on Twitter, I think “well, here’s the day we find out he died in a parasailing accident in Switzerland.”
Each year he’s still around and working, the stakes of a Bill Murray movie get higher. And he’s got a new one out. It’s called Rock the Kasbah, it made $1.5 million in its opening weekend on 2,000 screens, and critical consensus is that it’s the worst movie he’s ever made.
You could intuit this by the Twitter reaction. We all want to love a new Bill Murray movie. Just saying “Bill Murray movie” conjures up halcyon memories of watching Groundhog Day or Ghostbusters with a hazy sense of contentment. But nobody mentioned this one, even though its carpet-bombed trailers were impossible to avoid. Nobody wants to hate it, they just want to forget it happened.
The problem with Rock the Kasbah is obvious. It’s just a dog. It comes off like a schlocky feel good flick your parents rented and didn’t talk about in 1993. It’s an overly tidy, bet-hedging, warmly lit White Savior fairytale that could have starred Tom Hanks and been directed by Rob Reiner and had its three uses of the word “bullshit” excised for the TBS edit you fell asleep watching. It’s also arch-boomer, with Joplin and Hendrix reference points that are just embarrassing when deployed so earnestly in 2015. And it forces Murray to do schtick instead of allowing him the space to do it, which wraps the whole package in a tidy ribbon of dusty desperation.
But the bigger problem is the terrible realization it triggers: the Bill Murray comeback is over. It’s been over for ten years. It started in 1999, back when Wes Anderson was content to make movies instead of dollhouses, it peaked with an Oscar nomination for Lost in Translation, and it ended with Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers in 2005. He hasn’t anchored a great movie since. It’s a longer dry spell than the one between Groundhog Day and Rushmore.
The problem is that there are two Bill Murrays. There’s Bill Murray, One Man Coachella, and there’s Bill Murray, the great actor. Since 2005 and his rise to meme legend, he’s been trading more and more on Coachella Murray. That stuff’s fine in small doses. It made all of his Letterman appearances appointment television, but it doesn’t fly for a full-blown movie. He needs space to actually go to work and act, and a director who actually knows what his talents are, instead of deferring to his fame and reputation.
Broken Flowers is the perfect example of the movie Murray should have done five or six times by now. It doesn’t let his reputation precede him. It just trusts him. It’s a simple picaresque story about a man of inaction forced groggily into solving a mystery. It’s a mood piece, existential with some remove, slow and never desperate enough to beg for your attention. It takes away all of Murray’s crowdwork tool kit, so he has to let the lines of his face and his sideways glances do all the heavy lifting. The result is a performance of striking pathos and real vulnerability.
What that movie understands, and what everybody neglects when they talk about Coachella Murray, is that class clowns age into the loneliest people in the world. When you take away their parade, the silence is deafening, lethal. They take on a naturally sad and dark emotional tenor that other performers spend entire careers trying to convincingly fake. Broken Flowers was smart enough to know that Bill Murray already was a living legend and didn’t need another loud, showy comedy under his belt. He already did those when he was young and the time was right.
At 65 years old, Murray is now a bottomless well for potential Don Quixote from Chicago roles, yet he hasn’t done a single one, instead overachieving in movies that don’t deserve it. Hyde Park on Hudson was a great performance in what basically amounted to a direct-to-DVD sequel to The King’s Speech. St. Vincent would have been a nice “innocent boy befriends Charles Bukowski” cult hit if it didn’t feel like such a Weinstein Company movie, hitting the most obvious and calculated emotional beat possible at every turn. The Monuments Men is basically “George Clooney and his friends dress up in WWII costumes.” And Get Low is, “well, I like it, but I watched Secondhand Lions with my grandpa a lot.”
Maybe he shot himself in the foot by having no agent and being so difficult to find. If he had the right agent, maybe he would have taken the roles written for him in The Squid and the Whale, The Ice Harvest, and Little Miss Sunshine. Maybe he wouldn’t have staggered into something as punishingly sad as a swing-for-the-fences by the washed-up Barry Levinson, who makes movies for people who buy DVDs at grocery stores. But if Murray’s public appearances are any indication, he’d rather be known as a force of social chaos than a great actor. And that’s our loss.
Follow Kaleb Horton on Twitter.