At one of the few critical points in Rock The Kasbah, Bruce Willis’ disgruntled mercenary says “You’ve just got to love this guy” of Bill Murray’s character, grating talent agent Richie Lanz, as he tries to talk his way out of yet another group of foreigners with guns. No Bruce, I do not. This is a movie that just thinks that it’s so darn-tootin’ cute at every turn, which would be perfectly fine if it wasn’t also trying to make an honest statement about the gender and war based atrocities that go on in the middle east. Not exactly the best fodder for Bill Murray to walk around smirking at people with, but if there was even a slight idea as to what this story was trying to say, it could have worked. Oh well, Best Buy bargain bins don’t fill themselves.
Down on his luck and conducting deals out of a motel room, Richie Lanz (Bill Murray) is in desperate need of a break, to pay his over-due child support if nothing else. He only has one client with any promise, a cover singer named Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) and even she is too deep into drugs to really make something of herself. When Richie lands Ronnie a gig in Afghanistan to sing on an army tour, Richie jumps at the opportunity, but things don’t go according to plan. Desperate to get home, Ronnie loses her way, and ultimately leaves Richie to his own devices without a Passport or any money to get himself home. Desperate for a way out, Richie ultimately discovers the talented young singer Salima (Leem Lubany) who is oppressed by a culture that frowns upon women expressing themselves in such ways.
Director Barry Levinson has most certainly braved politically uncertain waters very successfully in films such as Wag The Dog and Good Morning Vietnam. In fact, he just might be the very best at the hot-button issue comedy when he’s on his A-game. Unfortunately, Rock The Kasbah feels more like a call-back to his clumsy, oft-forgotten effort Man of the Year than anything else. This film has no idea what tone it wants to strike. Sometimes it’s a light and borderline cartoonish romp through Afghanistan that feels pulled out of a comic strip, while at others it seems to genuinely want to provide a tolerance fueled message about the oppression of women in middle east. However, none of the more sincere messages land, because the film’s depiction of it’s middle eastern characters is grossly one note. While all of the American characters are somewhat layered and given at least a modicum of personality, these folks are either completely friendly or utterly nasty, the movie hoping that Murray’s quips will help the audience to look past it.
Unfortunately, Murray is a far cry from the comedic live-wire he was in his prime. Richie is essentially a sleazy con-artist who will say just about anything to get his next deal in place, and it takes a heavily charming actor to make an audience care about such a character. Not only does Murray have no such charm, but his delivery is so sluggish and phoned in that he seems like he just woke up from a nap before every take. Meanwhile, Zooey Deschanel, Danny McBride, and Bruce Willis do what they can with half-note roles that give them next to nothing to go off of, while Kate Hudson gets saddled with the proverbial “hooker with a heart of gold,” with a strange country accent to boot. Really, we’re still playing this trope out in 2015? Surly there could have been something more relevant she could have been doing, especially considering that all of the soldiers with major roles in the film are male.
Despite only being an hour and forty minutes, Rock The Kasbah is droningly stretched out to the point of exhaustion. Not only does the story switch focuses about eleven times, but characters will simply drop in and out of the story willy-nilly without even the slightest hint of where they’ve gone. There will even be scenes where major plot beats will have taken place off screen, as characters frantically react to events that we weren’t even a bit privy to. It feels like a film that’s been chopped to bits in the edit bay over and over again, giving us a war torn final cut that died of blood loss a long time ago.
If a terrible screenwriter from 1987 time-traveled to 2005 Afghanistan and decided that a movie had to be made about what he saw, Rock The Kasbah would be his creation. Completely missing the mark in both it’s satirical and emotional elements, it’s a film where each moment feels a bit flatter than the last. It also goes to show that perhaps it’s time for Murray to resign to supporting roles for the rest of his career, as the sparks that once made him a star are now just burn marks in the pavement outside of the movie theater.