There’s probably an interesting movie somewhere in Bill Murray’s new comedy “Rock the Kasbah.” Unfortunately, what director Barry Levinson and editor Aaron Yanes ended up culling together is mostly an unintelligible mess. Worse, it has one of the most awkward abrupt endings of a major release in recent memory. Not the most encouraging way to start off a movie review, is it?
Written by Mitch Glazer, “Kasbah” doesn’t have an “inspired by” or “based on a true story” title card, but it appears to be inspired by Lima Sahar, the first woman to appear on the Afghanistan television show “Afghan Star.” Similar to “American Idol” or Britain’s “X-Factor,” “Star” is a singing competition show that began airing in the war torn country in 2005 and is still going strong today. Sahar’s appearance was controversial in a nation that mostly lives by conservative Muslim standards. It’s a fascinating story and you can see why Glazer and Levinson would want to explore the complex social and political situation on screen even in the context of a comedic farce. The problem is the movie does nothing of the sort.
“Kasbah” begins in Van Nuys, California where Richie Lanz (Murray) is a down on his luck music manager who will sign anyone for $1200 down and a handshake agreement that he insists is his “word.” In fact, Lanz is so down on his luck he’s living and working out of a crappy motel room and one of his clients, Ronnie (a wasted Zooey Deschanel), acts as his defacto receptionist. She’s also a singer – a bad one at that – but before you know it a random and inebriated USO recruiter has them booked on a flight to tour Afghanistan for money both Richie and Ronnie desperately need. The scared out of her mind Ronnie’s barely makes it into the hotel bar before she meets modern day mercenary or hire, Bombay Brian (a barely there Bruce Willis). She quickly ditches her boss for a fling with Brian leaving Richie in he middle of nowhere with no money, no passport and only his wits to get by (and we never see or hear from Ronnie again). Of course, if you’re Murray, er, Richie that means you can pretty much talk yourself out of any situation. Even deadly stare downs that involve Afghani warlords who we’re supposed to believe are amused by Murray, er Richie’s eccentric antics.
Truth be told, Murray is uniquely talented enough that if the script was even minimally interesting he could elevate it to something that’s at least semi-entertaining to watch. And, at times, he’s able to manufacture some genuine laughs, but they are too far and in-between. By the time Richie meets the film’s Sahar stand in, Salima (Leem Lubany), Murray has to sell the idea his character would risk his life to manage the daughter of a warlord he was finagled into selling arms to earlier in the movie (don’t ask) on a television program she probably has no shot at winning. Doesn’t that sound funny?
Levinson has surrounded Murray with talented co-stars besides Deschanel, but given them little to do. Kate Hudson tries in vain to make her character more than a prostitute with savvy business instincts and Danny McBride and Scott Caan are completely misused as a pair of party hungry arms dealers. Willis and Murray showed sparks in Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” but the former’s casting seems like a waste here. The most shocking part of the picture is actually how little Lubany has say or do as Salima (it’s not even clear whether it’s her voice heard singing).
You can argue the film paints a stereotypical portrait of the Afghani people, but the movie is so lazy it’s almost not worth the effort. Case in point and – spoiler alert – Salima makes the top three of “Afghan Star” and performs “Peace Train” to the delight of the audience. Then the movie simply ends. There is an end card dedication to Shar, but that’s it. And if the filmmakers care so little that they end their film with a giant “thud” why should you?
“Rock the Kasbah” opens nationwide on Friday.