As “Rock the Kasbah” begins, Richie Lanz (Bill Murray) leans back in the chair of his cluttered office, flanked by photos snapped decades ago of himself cozying up to famous musicians.
He’s suffering through a tone-deaf, over-enunciated audition by a potential client who is hoping this talent manager can make her a star. Richie knows she can’t sing, but he’s more than happy to offer up promises and cash her check.
“My life is about seeing an open door and walking through it,” the slumming Richie says. “But some (expletive) has changed the locks on me.”
In certain respects, somebody has changed the locks on the director of this misfire, Barry Levinson. It has been years since the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind “Rain Man” delivered a watchable movie (1996’s “Sleepers” perhaps?). Here, he squanders Murray’s charms, handcuffing the comedian with an unappealing, self-centered character.
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“Rock the Kasbah” takes its name, though not its spelling, from the 1982 single by the Clash. The movie’s ripe premise and undeniable star power should be enough to make this culture-clash comedy sing. But the main clash viewers are left with is the one between fertile expectations and arid reality.
Apart from the amusing intro, most scenes come across just as flat and out-of-touch as Richie’s constant name dropping of bygone rockers. Worse, the film’s xenophobia knows no bounds.
Richie learns of an opportunity to accompany his most-promising client (Zooey Deschanel) on a USO tour in Afghanistan. (The movie was filmed in Morocco.) Before long, he’s stuck in the desert without a performer, money, passport or options. Then he stumbles across a new artist.
Despite being officially written by Mitch Glazer (of Murray’s “Scrooged”), “Kasbah” plays like a comedy penned by Donald Rumsfeld. The Afghans are either warlords or servile cab drivers. The females are nameless and covered — all except for Salima (Leem Lubany), a cloistered teen who never leaves her village yet is the only one in her tribe who speaks fluent English.
Richie hears Salima singing in a cave (really) and decides she’s his next meal ticket. If only he can usher the young Muslim away from her militant father (Fahim Fazli) and onto the stage of “Afghan Star,” an “American Idol”-esque TV show that could showcase her voice to the country.
As they say in the Clash tune, “By order of the prophet / We ban that boogie sound.”
This leads to a moment where she belts Cat Stevens’ “Wide World” that should bring down the house but elicits only the equivalent of polite applause in the viewer. In press materials, Salima’s story is promoted as the centerpiece of the film, the mechanism that powers the plot. But Levinson doesn’t show much interest in this undercooked character, distracted instead by subplots involving arms deals gone wrong. Or yet another scene where Richie attempts to talk his way out of a dangerous situation to people who speak only Pashto.
In fairness, the Americans in the picture aren’t portrayed as any less stereotypical than the Afghans. Richie encounters indifferent soldiers (Taylor Kinney), gun-running opportunists (Danny McBride and Scott Caan), psycho mercenaries (Bruce Willis) and beautiful prostitutes with hearts of gold (Kate Hudson). The latter inexplicably falls for the seedy, burned-out Richie because clearly she has so few opportunities for meeting attractive younger men while operating beside a U.S. military base.
That’s the film’s strategy in general: “Here’s Bill Murray. You simply can’t resist him.”
Around the time he renders an excruciating solo version of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” to a confused band of tribal warriors, Murray proves so very resistible.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
‘Rock the Kasbah’