“Rock the Kasbah” is an old school/Old Murray comedy, the type he would have knocked out of the park in his mid-80s-early-90s heyday. If, that is, you could convince him not to sleepwalk through it.
But here, playing a has-been rock promoter who discovers a culture-shifting singing sensation while on a USO tour in bloodied, embattled Afghanistan, we only get a flash or two of the Old Murray. This lame, laugh-starved script (Glazer wrote “Scrooged” for him( makes Murray look like an Old Man — not a funny old man or a Grumpy old man (see the fine “St. Vincent” for that). Just old and not really up to trying too hard.
Richie Lanz (Murray) may be working out of a seedy Van Nuys hotel, conning talentless singers out of expense and promotion money. But he’s got the photos on the wall — him, much younger, with rock’s most famous and infamous. And he’s got the stories, about discovering Madonna.
“Did I tell you my Stevie Nicks story?”
His last shot seems to be Ronnie, played by actress-singer Zooey Deschanel. He has her singing covers to a backing track in a local bar. That’s where the USO promoter finds them, and drunkenly books them both to entertain the troops in a war zone.
Deschanel is (briefly) the life of the movie, melting down and freaking out from the moment they get on an Afghan airliner to her frantic hook-up with a mercenary (“Contractor”) named “Bombay” (Bruce Willis) who gets her out of the country, taking Richie’s cash and passport with her.
Here Richie is, a legend in his own mind, a fast-talking deal-maker, stuck in a dangerous place with no way of getting out. These two American arms dealers (the hilarious Danny McBride and the gonzo Scott Caan) seek him out and befriend him.
“You’re in Kabul. Man up!”
Yeah, “a coupla months ago, we were Herbal-life dealers.” But now, they’ve got a paying gig for Richie — deliver some ammo to a remote Pashtun tribe. Scared and dazed, he accepts. And that’s where he hears Salima (Leem Lubany). She’s obsessed with her country’s version of TV’s “America’s Got Talent,” “Afghan Star.” And she sings Cat Stevens ballads and accompanies herself on the guitar.
Richie has his new mission. The fact that there’s an “honor killing” in her future for “shaming” her father and culture for showing her lip-glossed/made up face and singing in English on TV doesn’t get in the way of Richie’s dream.
Kate Hudson plays another hooker-with-the-heart of gold whom Richie draws into the deal. Arian Moayed is the ’70s Soul-obsessed taxi driver/translator who translates for Richie, who gets mixed up in a tribal conflict and has to talk himself out of one gun-to-his-face jam after another.
And therein lies the problem. The lines Glazer has Murray spout to win people over and “close the deal” — this deal, that deal — aren’t funny or interesting or convincing. Murray, who has latterly made a new career for himself doing killer cameos, stinging supporting parts that play on his still-intact reservoir of cool — can’t manage the “fast-talking” part of the role. Aside from “St. Vincent,” he’s not been up to doing that sort of heavy-lifting in a leading role in years.
Director Barry Levinson is a long way from “Rain Man” himself, and cannot find funny in a situation that seems rife with it. A few scenes suggest the absurd dichotomies of “Good Morning, Vietnam” — McBride and Caan drunkenly hooting and hollering through Kabul in the back of an ancient LTD convertible. A CONVERTIBLE! But this whole USO tour gone wrong thing has been done often, and better, in films such as “The Sapphires” or the James Brown bio-pic “Get on Up.”
The big idea here, that a woman might break through the repressive patriarchy of the Middle East and change people’s hearts, is handled clumsily. In 2008, a real Pashtun woman, Lima Sahar, tried to manage that and the film is sort of inspired by her story. But the fictional comedy surrounding it isn’t funny enough and this third act gravitas doesn’t mesh with it.
Salima in the movie sings perhaps the only Western songbook theoretically approved by the Islamic world. But the movie’s most tone-deaf assumption is the idea that Yusuf Islam, the pop singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, is so totally rehabilitated that we can listen to his music — on the soundtrack and sung onstage — and not remember how he became the Western face for Islamic intolerance, thanks to his conversion and pronouncements on things like the death sentence (fatwa) hurled at writers who dared to criticize the religion-that-won’t-be-criticized.
Murray does what he can, sings “Smoke on the Water” with “Saturday Night Live” era gusto and tries to do something different with Richie. And that’s where Glazer and he go so wrong. It’s not originality that would have paid off. All that was called for here was a cover tune, just a few scenes with Murray’s Greatest Hits, preferably not phoned in.
MPAA Rating:R for language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence
Cast: Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Zooey Deschanel, Leem Lubany, Kate Hudson, Danny McBride, Scott Caan
Credits: Directed by Barry Levinson, script by Mitch Glazer. An Open Road release.
Running time: 1:40