Mark Reviews Movies

Rock the Kasbah


1 Star (out of 4)

Director: Barry Levinson

Cast: Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel, Leem Lubany, Arian Moayed, Scott Caan, Danny McBride, Fahim Fazli

MPAA Rating: R (for language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence)

Running Time: 1:40

Release Date: 10/23/15

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 22, 2015

Bill Murray's performance in Rock the Kasbah is akin to a man throwing life preservers and lowering lifeboats aboard a quickly sinking ship. He's doing the right thing here, and he does so admirably. Everything else in the movie is the problem, and it's a big one. If we continue the sinking ship metaphor, this ship starts to sink while it's still moored to port, which in turn makes Murray's performance a pretty pointless act of courage.

There's a line in the movie, just before a decisive battle, in which Murray's Richie Lanz, a hapless talent manager who finds himself having to prepare for a shootout in a village in the desert of Afghanistan, chides an American mercenary for thinking of abandoning the fight. "You don't want to be the guy who left the Alamo," Richie says, and one can't help but imagine Murray saying that same thing to himself before every take (There's an awkward moment in which Richie gets out of a jeep and walks off into desert, and we half expect—almost hope—that the scene is actually an outtake in which Murray has dropped character and given up on the whole affair).

Richie's primary motivation is that he really, really doesn't want to be here in Afghanistan, but while he's there, he'll make the most of a terrible situation. The movie, then, offers the sort of emotional and psychological foundation that would be the envy of any Method actor.

After Murray's pyrrhic victory of a performance, where do we begin with this mess? Well, the movie is a comedy, or at least it thinks it is. It's a comedy set in a country ravaged by a war that is still happening.

That would be fine if the screenplay by Mitch Glazer had any legitimate insight into the current situation in Afghanistan, but it doesn't. The movie acknowledges that Afghanistan is an awful, awful place right now and that the battle rages on with no end in sight. Then it expects us to have a few hearty laughs in light of those facts. It's pretty easy to try to joke about them when neither Glazer nor director Barry Levinson attempt to portray the actual results of war. Even that climactic shootout is kept off screen, because there's no quicker way to mellow the buzz than to show that sort of thing for what it is. It's also disingenuous and cynical, but that should be obvious.

Richie finds himself in Afghanistan after a random encounter at a bar with a man who tells him that the USO is looking for performers to open for the major acts. The movie's early scenes, establishing as Richie a leech who cons aspiring but hopeless singers for managerial services that will result in nothing, are its most promising. Murray can play this sort of role—of a conniving but general likeable louse—in his sleep (In this instance, he might need to scold his agent for the wake-up call). The promise only lasts for a handful of scenes before Richie and his karaoke-singing assistant/client Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) are on a plane to Kabul.

After realizing how bad things are there, Ronnie absconds Afghanistan with Richie's wallet and passport (The latter makes no sense, except as a way to actually move forward with the story). The military wants nothing to do with him, since he doesn't have anything to offer.

He finds solace in Merci (Kate Hudson), a sympathetic prostitute, but a mercenary named Bombay Brian (Bruce Willis) wants $1,000 to cover Ronnie's flight. Richie takes up with a pair of arms dealers (Scott Caan and Danny McBride). They promise him plenty of cash for selling ammunition to the chief (Fahim Fazli) of a local village that wants to defend itself against insurgents.

There, Richie meets Salima (Leem Lubany), a lovely singer with dreams of stardom that stand in direct opposition to the ultra-conservative customs of her culture. Richie fights to get her on a singing-competition television show.

The real promise of Rock the Kasbah, then, is in Salima's story (inspired, we learn in the credits, by a real person), but no, Glazer continues to follow Richie, who flails and mopes and sings his way into the grudging hearts of the locals. Murray's shtick starts to feel forced amidst this dead-end narrative, which runs out of functional ideas almost as soon as Richie lands in Kabul while still remaining woefully predictable. That's a kind of accomplishment, I guess.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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