Bill Murray’s latest star vehicle shares a director with Good Morning, Vietnam, and boy, does it ever show.
An American entertainer (a radio DJ in Good Morning, Vietnam, a tour manager in Rock the Kasbah) played by a real-life comedy icon (Robin Williams, Bill Murray) ends up in a war zone (Saigon, Kabul), acquires a sidekick (student in his English language class, disco-loving cab driver), tries to shake up a culture resistant to change (the military, Afghanistan), and learns a thing or two about himself in the process.
Oh yeah, and Rock the Kasbah‘s race and gender politics are about 30 years out of date.
At its core, Kasbah is a paint-by-numbers redemption narrative, one that relies on Murray’s charm to elevate it into something more interesting and less offensive. Murray plays Richie Lanz, former tour manager to the stars — every star, to hear him tell it, from Jimi Hendrix to Madonna to John Cougar Mellencamp — fallen on hard times. He’s exiled to Van Nuys (“soon to be Beverly Hills”), scamming potential clients like Louie‘s Sarah Baker with strategic negs (a grain of sand irritates an oyster into making a pearl, and “you are that irritant!”) and deals sealed with handshakes, which happen to be both more charming and less legally binding than contracts.
Richie’s “business” partner and sole client is one Ronnie Smiler (Zooey Deschanel), though he hasn’t done much for her career besides book her a weekly gig doing covers at a strip-mall dive bar. That’s where he meets a USO booker who promises a Demi Lovato opening slot and signs Ronnie up for a tour in Afghanistan. Ronnie, of course, has no say in this decision at all.
As it turns out, Ronnie has about as much of a role in the movie as she has control over her own career. Her job is to get Richie to Afghanistan before she takes off with his money and passport so she can book herself a one-way ticket back to LA. After watching Ronnie cry her eyes out on the plane and literally beg Richie to take her home, my reaction to this was, “Right on!”; director Barry Levinson and screenwriter Mitch Glazer seemed to be aiming for something closer to Taylor “Future Mr. Lady Gaga” Kinney’s insta-take: “Women!”
Stranded and in search of a new project, Richie finds one in the form of Salima Khan (Leem Lubany), the daughter of a Pashtun chief and self-taught singer whom he discovers in an actual cave. (How Richie comes to be in said cave is explained with a laughably thin plot device involving Danny McBride and Scott Caan as Arms and the Dudes-style ammo dealers.) Richie decides he’s going to land Salima on the American Idol-style reality show Afghan Star, with zero input from Salima herself — see a pattern in how Richie handles his clients? Dad isn’t wild about this, and so it’s up to the white man to rescue Salima from her backwards culture.
Harsh? Maybe, but get this: Afghan Star is a real TV show, and Salima Khan is based on Setara Hussainzada, a real contestant. Rock the Kasbah isn’t even the first movie about Setara; a 2009 documentary, also called Afghan Star, chronicles her and three other contestants’ time on the show, and HBO’s 2011 follow-up Silencing the Song: An Afghan Fallen Star tracks the repercussions that followed. Except in real life, there was no Richie to “rescue” Setara or guide her into the spotlight. (There was also another female contestant, Lema Sahar, though composite characters fall well under the umbrella of acceptable narrative streamlining.) Setara’s success is her own, or at least it was until Rock the Kasbah decided to tell her story as a subplot of Richie’s.
Yes, Glazer does the bare minimum and allows Afghan Star‘s host to say what everyone’s thinking, snapping, “You do not lecture me about courage, about my country” when Richie lays out the case for letting a woman onto the show. But he caves when Richie pivots to how much money he stands to make, turning a legitimate point — albeit not one its writer seems to have internalized — into a token objection. The remainder of Rock the Kasbah is happy to let Richie bask in self-congratulation for getting his managerial mojo back.
Almost every character in the movie is, in fact, an accessory to Richie’s reawakening. There’s Riza (Arian Moayed), his instantly game cab driver turned translator. There’s Bruce Willis, randomly, as a mercenary who acts as the brawn to Richie’s brains. And worst of all, there’s Merci (Kate Hudson), a walking hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché who exists to give Richie his obligatory “don’t give up now!” pep talk in the third act. And to illustrate this Vulture infographic. And to show up wearing a bindi, in case viewers weren’t already cringing at how this movie handles race and ethnicity.
But ultimately, this is the story of Richie Lanz. Richie introducing poor Pashtun villagers to “Smoke on the Water.” Richie convincing a father to accept his daughter. Richie showing an entire country they’re ready for a female star, even if they don’t know it yet. Richie isn’t without some redeeming value; after all, it’s impossible to put Bill Murray in front of a camera and not capture part of his appeal. Rock the Kasbah puts that truism to the test, though, and comes dangerously close to proving it wrong.