'Rock the Kasbah': Film Review

The music business and Afghanistan make queasy bedfellows.

Barry Levinson's latest casts Bill Murray as an aging rock tour manager who ends up getting stranded in Afghanistan.

The gaps between the hipster comedy of the star, the incipient sentimentality of the story and the gravely depressing reality of the setting provide tonal abysses simply too vast to bridge in Rock the Kasbah, an intermittently amusing but dramatically problematic mish-mash that careens all over a rough and rocky road. The idea of parachuting Bill Murray as a washed-up '60s rock tour manager into the nightmare of contemporary Afghanistan no doubt seemed like too promising a fish-out-of-water story not to pursue. But so much of what goes down, particularly as concerns the modest but insistent hopefulness of the third act, feels like an overly idealistic wish-fulfillment fantasy and fails to unite the film's assorted creative aspirations. This Open Road release doesn't look to travel very far theatrically.

Whereas last year's St. Vincent milked Murray's curmudgeonly potential for all it was worth, Kasbah offers up the actor as a hippie-era relic who may have once been at the same party as Jimi, Janis and Jim but still behaves as if his counter-culture ticket has no expiration date. From the opening scene of his client-hungry Richie Lanz auditioning an impossibly bad young singer in his cheap Van Nuys digs, it's clear Murray has this perennial loser down cold, raising comic expectations for the moment this rock 'n' roll-world sad sack gets stuck in a place where no one has a clue where he's coming from.

Although he's certainly arrived at retirement age, especially in his line of work, Richie is still hustling for clients and gigs, even if he's scraping bottom; as he puts it, he's down but not out. But certainly nobody else in town would take the gig he accepts to oversee what promises to be “a hellacious” USO tour to Afghanistan. Accompanying him is equally destitute lounge singer Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel), who freaks out so badly at the sight of suspicious-looking turbaned men on the flight that, as soon as they arrive, she promptly turns around to go home, Richie's advance money and passport in hand.

Despite this and the fact that Kabul is in total lockdown, Richie is so conditioned to greet all adversity with hippie-era mellowness and a sense of music-business entitlement that his first move upon arrival at the woefully un-Majestic Hotel is to ask for an upgrade. He's then taken under wing by two fast-talking, well-connected and completely fearless arms dealers, Nic (Danny McBride) and Jake (Scott Caan). In the film's most engaging interlude, these hustlers pack Richie in their car and make a precarious nocturnal dash through the deeply ominous city streets to arrive at a heavily barricaded establishment that, once inside, looks like a Miami disco.

This joint, one concludes, is the contemporary equivalent of Rick's Cafe Americain, the spot where all foreigners congregate to wheel and deal before they can get out of Casablanca...errr, Kabul, where no one in their right mind wants to be. Let's just say that the clientele here is rather less sophisticated and classy than at Rick's (the music's not as good either), although Richie does meet an exotic hooker with the cute professional name of Merci (Kate Hudson) who's looking for her own version of letters of transit but would seem to be making a pretty penny in the meantime.

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Stuck in Afghanistan for two weeks until his new passport comes through, good time Richie is taken in tow by grizzled mercenary Bombay Brian (Bruce Willis), who's received half-payment from Ronnie to get Richie out of Dodge but demands another $1,000 from the hapless traveler. Just then, truly in the middle of nowhere (a cave in the desert wilderness, to be exact), Richie hears what he's been waiting to discover all his life—the purest, most lovely voice he's ever heard, singing the Cat Stevens (aka Yusuf Islam) song “Trouble,” first heard in a movie in Harold and Maude.

This miraculous vocal instrument is possessed by a beautiful teenage Pashtun girl, Salima (Leem Lubany), who wears traditional garb and must go to this isolated place to enjoy the pleasure of singing; her strict conservative father would have her hide if he found out. Richie takes the short, pragmatic view of things as always, that he was brought to this place for a great reason: To find the girl, put her on the performing competition show Afghan Star and use the proceeds from her inevitable winnings to get home.

Complications ensue, but suffice it to say that Rock the Kasbah morphs into a pretty implausible feel-good movie that's nearly as maudlin as it is unconvincing. This is in spite of the fact that the voice we hear is, in fact, very appealing, as is 17-year-old Lubany, who previously starred in the 2013 Oscar-nominated Palestinian drama Omar. As a point of interest, there is (or at least was) an actual Afghan TV show called Afghan Star and when a woman first appeared on it, well into its run, she was severely criticized and received death threats locally.

As well it might, the film maintains an arm's length from the ongoing war and political situation in Afghanistan, as well as from the American presence there; it tries, in what can only be considered a very, very small way, to add a feeble and not very convincing note of hope to the discussion of a situation that has already gotten worse since the film was made. The little victory concocted by screenwriter Mitch Glazer, who previously did Scrooged with Murray, at the moment feels even less significant now than it would have a year ago, so that the film's feint optimism feels rather foolish. Where director Barry Levinson is concerned, he must have felt certain reverberations from his 1987 hit Good Morning, Vietnam, in the way comedy and character were informed by wartime conditions, but lightning doesn't strike twice.

Murray knows this character like the back of his hand and frequently hits amusing notes in the role of a not-so-innocent but still oblivious fool who is forced to confront his pathetic reality everyday and barely, just barely, gets by without dealing with it. For her part, Lubany lifts the latter-going practically all by herself with her enchanting, if romanticized, presence and vocal performances, while McBride, Caan, Willis and Taylor Kinney, the latter as an army private assigned to Richie, get rambunctious character licks in. Deschanel is gone before you know it, while Hudson strikes some sparks as a woman who finds her own kind of action in Kabul.

Moroccan locations doubled for Afghanistan, where no Western dramatic film has been shot since Peter Brook's Meetings with Remarkable Men in 1979.

Production: Venture Forth, QED International, Shangri-La Entertainment

Cast: Bill Murray, Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel, Danny McBride, Scott Caan, Leem Lubany, Arian Moayed, Bruce Willis, Taylor Kinney, Glenn Fleshler, Daoud Sididi, Sameer Ali Khan, Fahim Fazil, Jonas Khan, Sarah Baker

Director: Barry Levinson

Screenwriter: Mitch Glazer

Producers: Jacob Pechenik, Bill Block, Ethan Smith, Steve Bing, Mitch Glazer

Executive producers: Tom Ortenberg Peter Lawson, Iakovos Petsenikakis, Iakovina Petsenikakina,

Sasha Shapiro, Anton Lessine, Brian Grazer, Tom Freston, Marsha Swinton

Director of photography: Sean Bobbitt

Production designer: Niels Sejer

Costume designer: Deborah L. Scott

Editors: Aaron Yanes, David Moritz

Music: Marcelo Zarvos

Casting: Ellen Chenoweth, Salah Benchegra

R rating, 106 minutes