It’s fitting that Barry Levinson’s charmless “Rock the Kasbah” opens with a chyron announcing that the action we’re about to see takes place “in the recent past,” because the rock n’ roll-tinged comedy feels like something pulled out of a very different time.
The Bill Murray-starring feature doesn’t come with any of the sharp political humor that punctuates films like Levinson’s “Good Morning, Vietnam” or “Wag the Dog,” instead opting to throw a bunch of “wacky” characters into a literal warzone and hoping that something amusing emerges from the subsequent friction. Although no one comes off looking especially good, an acceptable alternate title for the film could be “The Ugly Americans,” because Mitch Glazer’s script takes some of the worst stereotypes about ex-pats and blows them sky high. The result is a film populated exclusively by people who make not only baffling choices, but genuinely rotten ones.
The film reunites Murray with Glazer, whose finest credit to date may be the very amusing (and creative) Murray vehicle “Scrooged.” Sadly, all the cleverness that Glazer exhibited with his fresh spin on the “Christmas Carol” story has apparently been exhausted. “Rock the Kasbah” is a muddled mess of a feature that struggles to retain narrative threads and believable character motivations. Murray stars in the film as burnt out road manager Richie Lanz, whose copious lies about his place in rock n’ roll history (he often claims to have discovered Madonna) have ceased to attract the right kind of clients. Teetering on the edge of ruin, Richie accepts a plan to travel to Afghanistan with his assistant/aspiring star Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) as part of a USO tour, a bad idea that grows exponentially worse once the duo arrive in Kabul (their first trip through the city is set to Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba,” a remarkably terrible way to enter any kind of area populated by humans).
The film’s convoluted plot hinges on a series of meet-cutes with various supporting characters who only serve to deposit Richie more firmly into bizarro territory. From the drunk guy at a local Van Nuys karaoke bar who sets them up with the tour to the gruff soldier who seems uncomfortably disinterested in civilian safety to the kind-hearted and disco-obsessed cab driver who becomes Richie’s righthand man, every single character exists only to add a little flair to a plot that makes incrementally less sense as it limps onward.
Relationships are set up and swiftly abandoned (a tender moment between Richie and his young daughter is only referred to in the briefest of terms later, while Deschanel’s character goes missing after the film’s first act is never seen again), and disparate narrative threads flit in and out of frame and attention.
Although “Rock the Kasbah” features a large cast of both big stars and emerging talents, most of them are saddled with undercooked and out of date characters who are given little room to grow and develop, especially the film’s two female stars, Zooey Deschanel as the inscrutable Ronnie and Kate Hudson as local prostitute Miss Merci.
Although Ronnie’s (debatable) singing chops are the impetus for Richie setting out for Afghanistan, she goes missing (literally) during their first night in Kabul and is never seen or heard from again (and, really, no one seems to care, Richie is just mad that she took his cash and passport). Hudson’s hooker with a heart of gold initially propositions Richie — and he pays, as evidenced by his later emergence from her double-wide trailer to a waiting line of paying customers, all of whom he gleefully tells, “it’s worth the wait!” — before joining forces with him as part of a very artificial-feeling stab at female empowerment. She’s still just a tool of Richie’s (and he’s still just a tool in general).
Billed as a comedy, “Rock the Kasbah” appears to abandon that direction somewhere around its midpoint, when Murray and his cohorts (including Bruce Willis as a mercenary, for some inexplicable reason) are nearly killed on the way to guns-and-ammo hand-off that comes out of the blue. Suddenly, the film aims for political firepower, and is soon wholly out of its depth, despite Levinson’s past ability to skewer these kinds of situations with ease.
Murray plays the lead character with an amusing amount of swagger, but even he doesn’t seem especially enamored of the flat witticisms he’s asked to toss out, like a request that Ronnie imagine Kabul as “Aspen but, you know, during wartime” or an observation that “the chick in the red burka didn’t get the memo.” charm sputters out long before the film attempts to switch gears into something more profound.
“Rock the Kasbah” eventually comes to settle on a muddy narrative that involves Richie discovering a talented young singer (Leem Lubany) — a member of the Pashtun ethnic group, and thus prohibited from singing in public —and deciding that it’s God’s plan that he manage her all the way to the semi-final round of the extremely popular “Afghan Star” reality singing competition. It’s a little bit “American Dreamz” mixed with “Million Dollar Arm,” and although it could be the basis for an entire feature, “Rock the Kasbah” only includes it as a way to wrap up a meandering, scattered script in a way that cries out for emotional attachment.
There’s none to be found, and when the film’s closing credits kick off with a title card that announces that the film is dedicated to the real women who braved backlash to perform on the actual “Afghan Star,” the last-grab attempt to inject any kind of emotion or resonance into such a backwards-thinking film is enough to earn one laugh, probably the best of the entire feature.
“Rock the Kasbah” opens nationwide on Friday.