Mere weeks after the horrific bombing of an Afghan hospital and President Obama’s announcement of extended U.S. military presence in the region, this weekend might not prove to have been an ideal moment to release a film that treats the slow-motion tragedy of Afghanistan’s recent history as an exotic backdrop for broad fish-out-of-water comedy. Then again, there will probably never be a good time to release a project as fundamentally misjudged and disjointed as “Rock the Kasbah.” Extremely loosely inspired by the true story of Setara Hussainzada, an Afghan woman who braved death threats after appearing on the country’s version of “American Idol,” this Bill Murray starrer utterly fails to connect as an “Ishtar”-esque Muslim-world farce, a cynical skewering of American foreign policy, or a cuddly, inspirational ode to the unifying power of music — and to the film’s dubious credit, it does attempt all three. Commercial prospects do not look kosher.
Murray, who has rarely been less charming onscreen, stars as Richie Lanz, a loathsomely loudmouthed, down-on-his-luck music manager. Serving up tall tales of his decades in the trenches — depending on his audience, he’ll claim to have either discovered Madonna outside a Hamburger Hamlet, or convinced Jimi Hendrix to play “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock — he’s been reduced to scamming hopeless no-talents from his home-office in Van Nuys. He has one actual client, a cover-band singer-slash-secretary named Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel), and so little to go on that when a whiskey-guzzling passerby at a karaoke bar suggests he take Ronnie out for a USO tour of Afghanistan, he books the next flight to Kabul.
Once there, Ronnie takes one look at the bombed-out cityscape and flees, stealing Richie’s money and passport on her way. Being the type of character who rarely responds to situations in a recognizable human way, Richie deals with this dilemma by tagging along with a friendly pair of Herbalife salesmen turned gun runners (Scott Caan, Danny McBride) for a wild night out. Cruising through the mean streets of Kabul in a convertible, smoking pot, cracking wise, dodging armed gangs and finally alighting at a heavily fortified disco, the two resemble a pair of Colonel Kurtzes who went upriver only to discover the Electric Daisy Carnival waiting for them, and for a few precious minutes, the film suggests a sharp turn into satire.
Alas, Richie soon ditches them to meet cute with Merci (Kate Hudson), an American hooker with a heart of gold who runs a one-woman brothel from a trailer behind the club. The next morning, he’s waylaid by the steely-eyed mercenary (Bruce Willis) who smuggled Ronnie out of Afghanistan for half payment; now he’s demanding the other $1,000 out of Richie by day’s end. To raise the money, Richie agrees to take a shipment of ammunition down into the rural Paktia province, accompanied by his trusty, disco-loving, unpaid taxi driver-interpreter (Arian Moayed). Nearly killed by an IED in the desert, he’s accosted by a group of Pashtun men on horseback, who insist that he stay the night in their village as an honored guest.
It’s at this point, at least an hour into the film, that one realizes just how many ludicrous narrative contrivances the filmmakers have had to laboriously string together to bring their American protagonist into contact with the Afghan singer who will finally set the story in motion. In any case, it’s here that Richie first hears the mellifluous voice of Salima (Leem Lubany), a village girl secretly practicing Cat Stevens songs in a cave. Though she is culturally forbidden to sing in public, Richie recognizes a potential great when he hears one, and helps smuggle her to Kabul to compete on “Afghan Star,” a real-life singing competition show that swept the nation a decade ago.
With so much superfluous plotting going on — there’s hardly even time to mention the rival tribe of golf-loving, heroin-producing warlords, or the arms-trader conspiracy, or Richie’s precocious estranged daughter back home, or his inexplicable romance-cum-business partnership with the abruptly retired Merci — “Rock the Kasbah” struggles to find any sort of center at all. Screenwriter Mitch Glazer (who previously wrote the incalculably superior “Scrooged” for Murray) happens upon a few promising ideas, but rather than pick one to meaningfully explore, he simply grinds them all together into an unpalatable slurry. Most egregiously, though she seemingly ought to have equal billing in the story, Salima’s role is almost a glorified cameo, and we scarcely even get to hear enough of her singing to understand why Richie is so enamored.
Director Barry Levinson (who, like Glazer and Murray, has done wonderful work in the past and hopefully will do so again just as soon as this misfire is forgotten) never quite settles on a tone either, and some scenes are so formally out of sync with the rest of the film that they appear to have been helmed by a different person entirely. Laughs are few, attempts at feel-good catharsis fizzle out limply, and all of Murray’s most elaborate performance setpieces — especially his endless rendition of “Smoke on the Water” for tribal elders — fall embarrassingly flat.
Shooting in Morocco, d.p. Sean Bobbitt captures some lovely desert vistas, and a wealth of Cat Stevens tunes appear throughout. Aside from those, however, the film has quite the tin ear for music: “Rock the Kasbah” offers what is probably the first unironic use of Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba” since the late 1990s, and a late sequence that sets an impending village massacre to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” may well be the most culturally insensitive needle-drop since Wes Anderson had his posh heroes strut out of a poor Indian child’s funeral to the Kinks in slow-motion.