Film critics are a generally skeptical bunch, and when a film with big-name talent tries to fly under the radar—with a limited number of review screenings offered just a few days before opening and almost no marketing—our curiosity is naturally piqued further. Case in point: this weekend’s quiet release of Rock the Kasbah with Bill Murray, Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel, Danny McBride, Scott Caan and Bruce Willis, directed by Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man) and written by Mitch Glazer (Scrooged, The Recruit). After catching the only screening scheduled this week, we understand why distributor Open Road Films wanted to sweep this one under the rug.
A fish-out-of-water tale in set in Afghanistan, Rock the Kasbah is a mess of a film that wastes the talents of Murray and cast. If Levinson were trying to capture the sentiment of his earlier film Good Morning, Vietnam, which successfully mixed comedy and war, Rock the Kasbah completely misses the mark. We think Glazer’s script was supposed to be a comedy, or even a comedy-drama, and there are about three or four laughable moments in the film—but not in the way Glazer and Levinson intended. In addition to the film’s odd tone, a ridiculous number of storylines and characters appear then disappear just as quickly. Then there’s the issue of the awful treatment of female characters—and we’re not talking about the Afghani ones.
Murray plays Richie Lanz, a washed-up Bill Graham wannabe from Van Nuys, Calif. We’ve seen this “lovable bum” archetype from Murray before, from John in Stripes to Tripper in Meatballs. Richie is a slimy music manager who only takes on clients who can pay him; no talent required. He jumps at the chance for a paying USO tour of Afghanistan, forcing his assistant-client Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) to go and perform. Before he sets off for the war-torn country, he stops by and talks lovingly to his young—really young—precocious daughter outside her window, since he and his ex aren’t on the best terms. We don’t see the daughter much again in the film (which happens to a number of other characters, too) so the scene’s obviously only included to show that Richie has a heart after all.
When they land in Afghanistan, Ronnie and Richie are greeted by Private Barnes (Taylor Kinney). Barnes mostly vanishes after he drops the USO guests off at their hotel, and Ronnie disappears, too, after she bails on Richie and his tour, taking his money, passport and stranding him in the country. She manages to catch a flight out of Kabul pretty easily with the help of a sneering American mercenary, Bombay Brian (a role that’s now old hat for Bruce Willis).
Here’s where the real mad-cappery ensues. Since Bombay Brian says he’s going to kill Richie if he doesn’t pay for Ronnie’s passage, Richie agrees to do a weapons/ammunitions drop-off for two former Herbalife salesmen-turned-arms dealers, played by Scott Caan and Danny McBride (don’t get used to them either). Along the way to the remote village, he picks up a Pashtun sidekick, taxi driver Riza (Arian Moayed). The tough village leader Tariq (Fahim Fazli) is in need of the arms to protect his people from a warlord who wants to force them to grow poppies for the region’s opium trade. “I am tired of war, but I cannot afford the peace,” Tariq says solemnly with Riza as translator.
But wait! As if there weren’t enough disjointed plotlines running through the film, Richie discovers a beautiful voice singing in one of the caves, which turns out to be Salima (Leem Lubany)—Tariq’s daughter. She wants to be the first woman to sing on the American Idol-like show Afghan Star, but a Pashtun girl singing in public and on national television is forbidden. That she only knows Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens’ songs in English is also frowned upon, but Salima is determined to share her voice, a gift from God. Seeing potential dollars, Richie agrees to take her on as a client. He asks his new friend, Merci (Kate Hudson), a business-savvy hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold—kind of an older Penny Lane (Hudson’s role in Almost Famous)—to look after Salima while he works on getting her on Afghan Star.
It’s disappointing that the female American characters in Rock the Kasbah conform to tiresome sexist stereotypes—hussies or ditzes—showing how out of touch and unfunny this film is. It’s hard to overlook the age difference between Murray and Hudson, and coupled with the fact that Richie has a 10-year-old daughter, and a penchant for picking only ingénues as clients, he’s a little creepy. The fact he undergoes a spiritual awakening through helping Salima is too subtle a shift to offset the Svengali-ness of his character.
If Rock the Kasbah could have only cut to the chase and focused on this plot—its most intriguing—delving into the culture and customs of the Pashtun people, the film might have been salvaged. Glazer and Levinson lost an opportunity to turn Salima’s story into a teachable moment for Americans who are still largely clueless about the country that’s been at war for more than three decades. A standout in these Afghan Star scenes is Australian actor Beejan Land, who plays the Ryan Seacrest-like host/producer who admonishes Richie for telling him about bravery: “You do not lecture me about courage. There are more death threats on this show than singers.”
While Salima is an amalgam of characters, filmgoers are better served either just listening to Cat Stevens’/ Yusaf Islam albums—his music is a saving grace throughout the film. That, or watching the 2009 Afghan Star documentary that featured the real stories of contestants, including Setara Hussainzada (to whom Rock the Kasbah is dedicated) and Lema Sahar—women who withstood shame and death threats to perform on the show and break the barriers built under stifling Taliban rule.
Director: Barry Levinson
Writer: Mitch Glazer
Starring: Bill Murray, Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel, Danny McBride, Scott Caan, Leem Lubany, Arian Moayed and Bruce Willis
Release Date: Oct. 23, 2015
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.