Rock the Kasbah is a lazy comedy and outdated political farce that wastes Bill Murray’s comedic talents.
Bill Murray stars in Rock the Kasbah as Richie Lanz, a washed-out rock music manager who (through sheer dumb luck) lands his last remaining client/secretary Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) a gig performing as part of an USO tour in Afghanistan. However, the stress of being in the war-torn country is too much for Ronnie to handle and she is quick to leave Richie stranded in Kabul, taking his wallet and passport with her. Fortunately for Richie, he then befriends a pair of American arms dealers (Danny McBride and Scott Caan) who will provide him with funds and quick passage out of Afghanistan… once he oversees a transaction for them, that is.
Said job leads Richie to spend the night as a guest at the home of a Pashtun chief, where he discovers that the chief’s daughter, Salima (Leem Lubany), is in fact an extraordinary singer who has dreams of performing on the Afghanistan talent show, Afghan Star. Richie eventually agrees to help Salima on her quest (once he’s promised a cut of the profit, of course), even though it quickly lands the pair of them in trouble with Salima’s disapproving father. Question is, how far will Richie stick his neck out, in order to make his client’s dreams come true?
Rock the Kasbah, which is (very) loosely based on a true story, feels like it was designed specifically as a Billy Murray vehicle – and probably was, seeing as the film was scripted by Mitch Glazer: the writer of Scrooged and co-writer on the upcoming A Very Murray Christmas. However, as a result of this, Rock the Kasbah ends up falling short at being either an insightful political farce and/or a decent story about how great talent and creative expression can blossom anywhere. Instead, the movie unfolds as a string of scenes that form a half-baked narrative, which is meant to first and foremost provide an excuse for Murray to play yet another sardonic wiseacre who learns to be less self-concerned – a role he’s tackled many a time before, in much better comedy/dramas.
Director Barry Levinson is no stranger to comedian vehicles laced with social commentary (see Good Morning, Vietnam) and/or political satires either (see Wag the Dog), yet both the filmmaker and Glazer struggle to effectively blend the two things with Rock the Kasbah. One of the main problems is that the movie’s jabs a the U.S. military occupation of Afghanistan and/or the country’s culture often lack aim, while the jokes themselves aren’t usually sharp and tend to be delivered in a lackadaisical fashion. The movie also feels rather dated in the way it approaches its subject matter – like Albert Brooks’ Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, only starring Billy Murray and released ten years later – resulting in a film that feels all the less relevant and behind the times.
Aesthetically, Rock the Kasbah is by and large clunky in its assemblage. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave, The Place Beyond the Pines) and Levinson provide the visuals with a golden-brown tint to reflect its desert setting (note: the film was actually shot in Morocco). However, the effect winds up being grating overall, largely because the shot composition and framing tends to be weak – save for a handful of eye-catching shots depicting the scenery. The editing by Aaron Yanes (The Bay) also feels off, as the duration of shots varies in haphazard ways; one minute there’s an over-extended long take, the next there’s a bunch of overly-quick cuts in a single (and otherwise basic) scene. This contributes to the slack timing of how jokes are delivered in the film, at the same time that it undermines the film’s attempts at pure visual comedy and/or sight gags.
Bill Murray helps to keep Rock the Kasbah from sinking completely, yet the Richie Lanz character lacks the humanity and depth that the best aging wise-crackers that Murray has played over the last decade (or so) of his career. Similarly, such Hollywood stars as Danny McBride (This is the End), Scott Caan (Hawaii Five-O), and Bruce Willis – playing a pair of party-happy arms dealers and their gruff security head, respectively – portray thinly-drawn variations on the same character types that they generally play (and uninteresting ones at that). Rock the Kasbah also doesn’t have much for Zooey Deschanel to do, while Kate Hudson – playing a prostitute named Merci who lives in Afghanistan – largely serves as a springboard for Murray to deliver jokes off, as well as a source for words of encouragement for Richie in the film’s third act.
The best characters in Rock the Kasbah are the supporting characters played by actual Middle-Eastern actors; including, Arian Moayed (Rosewater) as Richie’s taxi driver-turned sidekick Riza, Leem Lubany (Omar) as the talent singer Salima, and Fahim Fazli (American Sniper) as Salima’s disapproving father, Tariq. Ultimately, though, these characters are often pushed to the sidelines of the film in order to keep the focus on Richie’s rather formulaic storyline; indeed, in a better movie, Richie would have been the funny comic relief, not the protagonist of the story.
When all is said and done, it’s pretty simple: Rock the Kasbah is a lazy comedy and outdated political farce that wastes Bill Murray’s comedic talents. Those who are hardcore fans of Bill Murray comedies may get additional mileage out of it, but even they will probably end up feeling that the movie is lacking in the laughs department and doesn’t give the beloved actor a whole lot in the way of quality material to draw from. It’s been a rough year for Murray and his film roles in 2015 (between Rock the Kasbah and Aloha), so here’s to hoping that 2016 goes better for him.
Rock the Kasbah is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 106 minutes long and is Rated R for language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence.
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