I love a good fish-out-of-water story, but why do all the fish have to be old white guys?
In Rock the Kasbah, Bill Murray plays a has-been—or perhaps never-was—rock manager named Richie Lanz, whose favorite client (the insufferable Zooey Deschanel) finds her way onto a USO tour of the war-torn Middle East. Mercifully, Deschannel disappears in the first act.
This should perfectly set the stage for Murray to improvise his way through the film without a clumsy plot to keep him in check, as he did during his late-career peak (Lost in Translation, Broken Flowers). But director Barry Levinson has other ideas—including armed showdowns, a hooker with a heart of gold (Kate Hudson), and mansplaining the world to angry Arabs. If the movie doesn't fully collapse under the weight of all that sound and fury, it at least bows.
A decade ago, Murray might have been able to carry the film, but in Kasbah he seems utterly deflated. His physical humor falls flat, and those deadpan stares that once communicated so much seem totally blank.
Not that he was given a lot to work with. Most of the film's writing comes off as capital-D Dialogue, and Bruce Willis is a boring pick for the ex-Army shit-kicker who serves as Murray's chauffeur. Danny McBride steals a few scenes as a crooked arms dealer, and Murray's Poncho (Arian Moayed) is compelling as a Bee Gees-loving cab driver. Mostly, though, the supporting characters are incredulous or angry extras, seldom given any room to come alive.
The real trouble with Kasbah, though, is a sharp change in the plot's trajectory midfilm that completely flattens most of its characters and risks being culturally offensive. We meet a young Afghan woman (Leem Lubany) whose dream is to appear on Afghan Star—the country's American Idol equivalent. But as she reluctantly picks Murray as her savior, she becomes a symbol of oppressed women everywhere. She is given precious few lines, no semblance of an inner life, and little motivation beyond pleasing Allah with her singing.
Keeping the full focus on Murray, whose First World problems seem increasingly petty as we meet Afghans whose lives are at stake, the film makes the Afghan people into mere storytelling props. This isn't just problematic on a cultural level, it leaves what could have been a great story half-told.
Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity comes when Murray as the hapless manager tries to persuade the host of Afghan Star to let his new client sing on the show. In a toothless exchange, the host tells Murray not to lecture him or the Afghan people. "Not you, an American," he says. "You talk and talk and talk—you have talked at us for years!" It seems the perfect launching point for an interaction that could give audiences perspective and enrich Murray's character. Instead, Levinson chooses to end the exchange there. Because the truth is that Levinson and presumably screenplay writer Mitch Glazer (Scrooged, Great Expectations) aren't interested in digging into the Afghan conflict. It's just a backdrop to them, and they do exactly what the host accuses Murray of: They talk and talk and talk.
I can hear the sighs and groans. "It's just a comedy," you say. And if Rock the Kasbah were a fully slapstick affair, I wouldn't nitpick it so much. But while the film's not-so-subtle message is about women's liberation, male characters run the show. This makes the whole affair feel like watching the old guard slide into obscurity, attempting to reach out to a world that scares and confuses them without actually leaving their comfort zone.
Levinson understands feminism is important, sure. But he's still not capable of writing a fully formed female character.
In the end, Rock the Kasbah isn't so much offensive as it is painfully boring. There just have to be other fish in the sea.
See it: Rock the Kasbah is rated R. It opens on Friday at most Portland-area theaters.