There’s a scene in “Rock the Kasbah” that finds Bill Murray caterwauling his way through Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” in a remote Afghan hamlet as the villagers look on in wonderment at this most peculiar spectacle.
The performance is quintessential Murray: way out there, shamelessly insistent and infused with an aggressive spirit that is uniquely his own. In the context of this movie, though, it elicits a reaction that amounts to: “Huh!? What’s going on here?”
Murray’s character, a has-been rock promoter from Southern California named Richie Lanz, wonders what he’s doing in dusty, dangerous Afghanistan. The real wonder is what the people who made the picture, principally screenwriter Mitch Glazer and director Barry Levinson, thought they were trying to accomplish.
“Kasbah” is intended as a comedy, but given the brutal realities of wartime Afghanistan, a clear artistic vision and a certain fearlessness in approach to its subject matter are essential to pull off the daunting feat of mining laughs from its situation.
“Kasbah” has neither.
It’s a misguided muddle that hasn’t that courage of its convictions. Indeed, it doesn’t seem to know what its convictions are.
Afghanistan, alien and unforgiving, particularly from an American perspective, would seem to call for a pitch black comic approach.
Levinson achieved that very thing years ago in “Wag the Dog.” But “Kasbah” seeks — gropes, actually — for Hollywood-brand uplift.
Richie, stranded in Kabul on a USO tour gone bust, hears an angelic voice floating from a cave, discovers it belongs to a young village girl (Leem Lubany) and conceives the idea of getting her on the Afghan TV version of “American Idol.” (There is in fact such a show.) Given the strict Islamic prohibitions against this sort of thing, it could get the girl killed by the Taliban, particularly as it’s an American pushing her participation. But Richie is after personal redemption — a blowhard and a fake, he’s never promoted anyone of consequence in the States — and Glazer’s screenplay pushes for a taboo-breaking, music-will-bring-us-together vibe that feels false.
Starring with Murray are Bruce Willis as a psychotic mercenary, Kate Hudson as a high-class call girl operating out of a Kabul double-wide (very strange), and Scott Caan and Danny McBride as scummy arms dealers. Their scenes are haphazardly connected to the central story. Murray, idiosyncratic as always, dominates, but his performance can’t save this misconceived mess.
ROCK THE KASBAH
☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Kate Hudson and Leem Lubany.
Director: Barry Levinson.
Running time: 1:26.
Rated: R, for brief violence, language, sexual references and some drug use.