'Rock the Kasbah'
Bill Murray is such a singularly hilarious and major talent that it can be easy to forget that he’s just as capable of delivering a stinker as anyone else. After all, the man did co-star with an elephant once. He can’t save every project by merely being Bill Murray. Unfortunately, ‘Rock the Kasbah’ is one of the weakest entries in the Murray mythology
What makes the movie so frustrating is that it has decent idea at the core, and Murray was surrounded by talented people who should know better. It’s almost inexplicable how poorly this thing turned out. Maybe nobody noticed until it happened.
Murray stars as Richie Lanz, one of those loser music managers for whom every conversation is a negotiation and every promise is made to be broken. He claims that he once worked with legends, but now works out of a fleabag rental unit. His top client (Zooey Deschanel) sings covers in dive bars. Somehow, Richie scores Zooey a gig entertaining the troops and they end up in Afghanistan. Things feel off immediately, what with all the explosions and irritated soldiers and so forth. Then things get really rough when Deschanel flees the country along with Richie’s cash and passport. Suddenly, he has no idea how to get home and a Bruce Willis-shaped mercenary demands that he pay what’s owed for Zooey’s escape. In desperation, Richie hooks up with a couple of sleazy arms dealers (Danny McBride and Scott Caan) and takes an idiotic job for some fast cash to get home.
That’s the setup and it’s not so bad. Shoving a freewheeling Murray into the middle of a war zone with sleazeball symbols of American imperialism has the potential for harsh comedy softened only by the charms of its star. With Barry Levinson (‘Diner’, ‘Wag the Dog’) calling the shots, Murray even has a directorial collaborator who likes lingering on actors as they stretch out scenes, and has knack for satire to ladle over the proceedings. And yet, nothing in the movie quite clicks. Even by Levinson’s rambling standards, the pacing is all over the place. Scenes feel like they’ve been truncated through editing to soften the tone and simplify the improv.
Selected moments work rather well, especially whenever Murray is corralling Deschanel’s hot mess or flinging filthy fun back and forth with McBride and Caan. However, at a certain point, all the bumbling bad behavior has to come together into something that gives the movie purpose, and that’s where things get messy.
Now, with this being a Bill Murray movie, one can only assume that the character will be offered a heaping plate of redemption along with a couple of life lessons about being a good guy. That only makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is how the movie abandons its goals of edgy wartime comedy entirely in favor of a parade of clichés, stereotypes and uncomfortable cultural commentary. It starts when Richie meets a hooker with a heart of gold played by Kate Hudson (who really, truly, desperately deserves some better roles). Richie also befriends a local taxi driver/translator (Arian Moayed) with broken English for all the delightfully dated humor that implies. Then things get really rough when Richie discovers an Afghan girl (Leem Lubany) singing Cat Stevens songs, and gets convinced she could win ‘Afghan Idol’ even though her family’s religion and sense of honor forbid it.
So yeah… that dark comedy you were promised about Bill Murray and Danny McBride causing trouble in Afghanistan? Don’t get your hopes up. ‘Rock the Kasbah’ is actually about Murray’s wiseass American proving that an entire culture is wrong by putting a woman in a singing contest and then falling in love with a kind-hearted prostitute (with no other personality traits, by the way) just because. Yecch. What a waste of time and talent.
The film might have at least been palatable if it had some laughs to reduce the pain, but despite a constant parade of jokes, few ever stick. Levinson, Murray, screenwriter Mitch Glazer and the rest of the crew couldn’t decide if they wanted to make a bleak comedy or a populist heart-warmer long enough to gain momentum in either direction.
‘Rock the Kasbah’ feels like two movies split down the middle. The first is muddled, yet at least has hints of promise. The second is an absolute disaster without a single laugh or relatable dramatic beat. (It even boasts some soft racism that gets quite uncomfortable.) It’s hard to imagine how this many talented people could have possibly have gone so wrong. The choppy editing certainly suggests that there must have been frantic attempts to salvage the project, so maybe it had too much improv to tame or maybe Levinson and Murray tried so many different directions that they never found their purpose.
Still, if you come out of a movie made by people you like desperately trying to justify their failure, clearly something went very wrong. On the plus side, at least ‘Rock the Kasbah’ is the type of mess that tends to disappear into obscurity quickly. Neither the people embarrassed they made it or saddened they saw it will think about this thing after a few weeks’ time.