Rock the Kasbah

1 out of 5

Directed by: Barry Levinson

Wow, this is one of the most ineffective, incompetent helmed-by-and-starring-professionals films I’ve seen.  It’s inability to have nearly a single line or scene that works is impressive, and that it proves this trait from start to finish…  Well, one wishes that were a more commendable accomplishment.

Bill Murray plays rock promoter Richie Lanz, relegated to booking bars and bar mitzvahs after, so he tells us, discovering Jimi Hendrix, and Madonna, and Blondie, and etcetera.  The ne’er-without-a-story, frazzle-haired, thumbs-up loser is shoe-in casting for Murray, but even from his opening scene – which should be a funny acceptance / rejection of a new, warbly-voiced client – the tone feels off.  We can’t tell if Lanz is actually talented or actually a failure, and that permeates throughout: Murray doesn’t seem sure; Levinson doesn’t seem sure; writer Mitch Glazer doesn’t seem sure; or rather, they all collectively think that leaving it dangling will be akin to deadpan humor – another Murray specialty – but it’s lacking the self-aware spark that makes such things work.   Anyhow, at a gig representing Zooey Deschanel, a drunken crowd member makes the implausible, random suggestion to take the show on the road to the USO tour of Afghanistan, and then we’re there.

So it’s a fish out of water comedy, playing off of happy-go-lucky Lanz in war-torn country?  Maybe?  It has the hallmarks of that: Deschanel takes off with his money and passport, and Lanz gets involved with gun runners Scott Caan and Danny McBride and mercenary Bruce Willis, and also falls in love with local prostitute Merci, played by Kate Hudson… but none of this is particularly funny.  Perhaps it’s because there’s an agenda sniffing around in the background, which comes at the hour mark when Lanz discovers a girl in an Afghani village who dreams of singing… which is, for her, forbidden.

Rock the Kasbah was loosely based on the experiences of Setara Hussainzada, who, like Salima (Leem Lubany) – the Afghani girl in this film – would go on the country’s version of American Idol, Afghan Star, to sing.  There is certainly an interesting story there, and the film opens up slightly when it gets to this portion, but it’s not given enough room or lead-in to feel affecting or earned.  And mixed in the the oddly unpunctuated comedy, it’s diluted even further.

Levinson, who likes to direct these low-key comedy mires with a laid-back camera, seems completely unmotivated here.  I felt zero presence in scenes; framing felt incidental, and we only moved if Murray decided to get up and walk somewhere.  All of the characters -Murray, Hudson, Kaan, Lubany – seem like they’re cold reading from different drafts of the script (one more comedic, one more outlandish, one more dramatic, etc.), and the soundtrack’s overuse of classic songs is, I suppose, fitting, but again, never quite feels connected to the scenes.

There have been a few movie experiences in my time that landed with a thud, and then repeat HBO / Comedy Central viewings would have my re-evaluate my take.  An inter-credits scene with Murray hints that Rock the Kasbah has that potential, but as I think back over how little of the film I enjoyed, and how much of a slog it was to get through, I have doubts it’d have that quality… even if streaming TV lent itself to the HBO / Comedy Central ‘I guess I’ll just watch what’s on’ mentality of ages’ past.

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