‘Rock the Kasbah’
Director: Barry Levinson
Stars: Bill Murray, Kate Hudson
1 Globe (out of 5)
To think Bill Murray could ever be “at his worst” is odd as he’s been an untouchable god since “Rushmore,” or perhaps forever. He’s so cool he would get a pass for two “Garfield”s even if he hadn’t apologized for them in “Zombieland.” Murray will probably never apologize for “Rock the Kasbah,” which is a good/bad way of seeing Murray at its worst. It’s him indulging in his laziest and most clueless tendencies, among them ignoring an obviously sloppy and dumb script that teems in Ugly Americanisms. Even his style of looking down on humanity takes a different air when he’s condescending to people from other countries and their weeeeeird cultures.
“Rock the Kasbah” is essentially “Bill Murray goes to Afghanistan,” and for awhile it seems to be a straight-up rip-off of that most unfairly hated of movies, “Ishtar.” Murray’s Richie Lanz isn’t a bad singer-songwriter but a bad music manager who pretends to be a has-been but was probably a never-was. He claims to have discovered Madonna and told Jimi Hendrix to play “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock; an old photo shows him instead with the likes of Michael Bolton, which is the film’s only solid joke.
Richie whimsically winds up with a gig in Kabul, which quickly derails into him being stranded in a hellhole where the president has nearly been assassinated. Meanwhile, the only Americans are a shady mercenary (Bruce Willis) and a pair of former life insurance salesmen (Danny McBride and Scott Caan), who’ve reinvented themselves as black market bullet dealers, though they say they only sell “to the good guys.”
This would be vicious, hilarious satire if Mitch Glazer’s script didn’t instantly abandon jokes about Americans abroad, instead turning the jokes on the Afghan people themselves. There’s so much twisting plot, mostly of Richie almost being killed by scary foreigners or, perhaps worse, befriending a heart-of-gold hooker (Kate Hudson), we might forget the movie’s cold open. We’re shown a young tribeswoman (Leem Lubany) clandestinely watching the Afghan version of “American Idol,” visibly pining for her own shot in a nation that oppresses her gender. She will eventually become Richie’s latest find, and the movie is dedicated to Lima Sahar, the first woman to get a shot on the real “Afghan Star.”
It’s here we may realize that the only way a movie about Sahar could get financing is if it was remodeled, top to bottom, as a wacky Bill Murray vehicle. From a fiscal side it makes sense; movies like the Iran-set “Desert Dancer,” which feature no one of Murray’s stature, make little money. On the other hand, the result is a film about life in another nation filled with borderline xenophobic jokes, not to mention another narrative about non-whites that’s instead about an old white man saving the day. This is essentially a movie where Bill Murray cures gender inequality in Afghanistan.
Murray never takes it seriously, and Richie never exactly has a Grinchian change-of-heart, which is almost certainly for the best. But he’s also not doing his above-it-all routine, ad-libbing his way over obviously below-par material. He’s actually game, which is even more depressing. Worse, he’s actively annoying. An endless scene of him busting out “Smoke on the Water” on a herat guitar in front of confused tribesmen is a low point in the Murray canon, though it’s still better than the way it handles serious issues in Afghan culture. It charges like a bull in a china shop into delicate matters. As it segues into West-splaining about oppression of women in a far-off nation, we can only cringe, preparing for the worst. Its saving grace is it has nothing much to say on the subject, instead ladling on bits like a bumper of Bill Murray haggling for several minutes over yarn with an old Afghan man — basically just an a cut-up doing “Kids Say the Darndest Things” but for non-Americans. It makes “Larger Than Life,” the Bill Murray elephant comedy from his pre-“Rushmore” dog days, look enticing.