The new comedy from director Barry Levinson is one of those films where the setup sounds funny but the execution falls listlessly flat.
Rock the Kasbah, which has nothing to do with the song from The Clash other than the title, tells of Richie Lanz (Bill Murray), a lousy Californian rock manager who takes his one and only singing client (Zooey Deschanel) on a USO tour of Afghanistan. The whole thing is a disaster. “It’s like Aspen, but in wartime,” Lanz insists as they arrive at what’s left of the run down Kabul airport, but the singer is having none of it. “This is a hell trip,” she declares.
When Lanz wakes up, the singer is gone. So, too, is his wallet, his money and his passport. Unable to do anything or go anywhere, Lanz is stranded in the middle of a war zone. But all is not completely lost. There are a few Americans and a couple of locals who might be able to get him home again.
First, there are the two American gun runners, Danny McBride and Scott Caan, who appear to be making a killing selling ammunition, willing to throw money at Lanz if he delivers a truck load of bullets to a warlord’s village. Second, there’s Kate Hudson as Merci, the local prostitute who serves the soldiers. “I can do things to you that are illegal in every country in the world,” she tells Lanz. Plus, there’s Bruce Willis as a humorless local mercenary. He’s the one who helped Descahnel get out of Afghanistan overnight and now he wants Lanz to pay the thousand dollars balance for the service, or else.
But just at the moment when Lanz has probably run out of any hope, in the middle of the night he suddenly hears a voice singing in English. It’s a female voice and it sounds as though it’s coming from a desert cave on the edge of a small village. Upon closer inspection, he finds the daughter of the village chief, Salima (Leem Lubany) practicing in secret, and Lanz is inspired.
There’s a local TV show called Afghan Star, the Afghanistan version of American Idol, and Lanz has plans to put Salima in the contest. But there’s a problem, and it’s a big one. As a Pashtun woman and the daughter of a warlord village chief, she is not to sing in public and certainly not on TV, and especially not in English. She would be killed, and so would those responsible for getting her on the television. And yet, that’s what Lanz does. With the help of Merci, Lanz gets the girl in the competition, and hell breaks lose. “We’re here to kill all unbelievers and the whore who sings!” declares an opposing warlord.
Even though Palestinian actress Leem Lubany has only a handful of small scenes, she’s the most interesting character. If we had witnessed more of her drive and her desires to want to sing, not to mention the courageous struggle of simply wanting to perform on TV in a country where tradition forbids it, then Rock the Kasbah might have had something. Both the songs she performs are frankly outstanding. They’re versions of two Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam numbers, Wild World and Peace Train. The end credits list one-time sixties pop singer turned hugely successful producer, Peter Asher as the arranger, and they’re simply great, particularly Peace Train where those famous lyrics we’ve heard since the seventies suddenly take on a different sense of poignancy, even importance, when presented in this setting.
The problem is Murray. Look back at his career; go all the way back to Meatballs and Ghostbusters. He’s never really played a character where he looks as though he’s actually in the film; he’s sleepwalking with the same low energy level, his droopy eyes half open as he passes through the scene and occasionally makes a quip that’s kind of funny and kind of not. “At Woodstock, Jimi Hendriz played the Star Spangled Banner because I told him to,” he declares. Like the rest of the film, the line sounds humorous when you quote it, yet it somehow falls flat when spoken, and that’s the same with all his other throwaway quips. They’re throwaways. Asking audiences to believe in him when he doesn’t appear to believe in his own character is asking a lot. When we first meet him, it’s in his run-down office, listening to a singer auditioning before him. His eyes are closed, giving the impression of deep thought and concentration as the young hopeful warbles. But he’s asleep and it’s clearly appropriate. He may open his eyes once the singing stops, but he never really wakes up. That benign and occasionally bemused Murray expression remains throughout the rest of the film. He’s still sleepwalking.
The film acknowledges that in real life there really was a female singer who appeared on Afghan Star. Somehow you get the feeling that maybe if they had told her story, things might have been appeared a lot more interesting than this banal and only mildly amusing fictional one.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 110 Minutes Overall Rating: 4 (out of 10)