Bill Murray brings progressiveness and peace to the Middle East in “Rock the Kasbah,” a dismally sloppy affair that wrongly assumes it can coast by on the charm of its star. Barry Levinson’s fish-out-of-water saga seems to have been processed through an editorial meat grinder, as it features subplots that are dropped at random, characters who disappear before their narrative threads have received even a cursory conclusion, and a raft of dilemmas that are resolved in the quickest, most disingenuously easy way possible. Rarely has a mainstream comedy boasting this much talent been so structurally amateurish, to the point that the film’s lack of humor seems a secondary problem to its more pressing storytelling incoherence.
Levinson’s tale involves Richie Lanz (Murray), a music manager operating out of a Van Nuys, California motel, who bilks delusional would-be artists out of cash with handshake-deal promises of future stardom. A huckster whose office is decorated with pictures of himself alongside famous musicians, Richie is presented as both a con-man without much in the way of ethics, and as a good guy who genuinely believes in making dreams come true. From start to finish, the tone-deaf screenplay by Mitch Glazer (who directed Murray in 2010’s wretched “Passion Play“) doesn’t adequately dramatize that duality, instead veering wildly between having Richie act like a two-bit loser and a skilled salesman whose gift of gab gets things done even in the face of insurmountable odds.
Richie is thus a hopelessly fuzzy creation, though that can’t be blamed on Murray, who does his best to carry the film across its bumpier patches – which is to say, its entire 102-minute runtime. “Rock the Kasbah” idles about during its first hour following Richie as he embarks on a USO-style tour of Afghanistan with a whiny singer (Zooey Deschanel). When, terrified of her war-torn concert environs, she steals his wallet and passport and flees the country, Richie winds up adrift in Kabul. Stranded in this inhospitable foreign land, which Levinson dully depicts as a place of routine horrors and pervasive dangers, Richie befriends two entrepreneurial American arms dealers (Danny McBride and Scott Caan), as well as falls in with a laughably-glamorous expat hooker (Kate Hudson) who ties Richie up in bed and makes him wear a blonde Marilyn Monroe wig and lipstick.
These early incidents are lame time-fillers, and only bearable because of the ramshackle, off-the-cuff energy Murray brings to Richie. Even though the vast majority of his one-liners fail to hit their mark, the star brings a loose, ragged wit and coolness to “Rock the Kasbah,” especially when he’s set against imposing desert landscapes while classic rock tracks (albeit not the titular song by The Clash) blare from the soundtrack. Unfortunately, those moments aren’t enough to salvage the proceedings from quickly devolving into chaos once Richie – who likes to brag about discovering Madonna and touring with Steve Nicks – is sent by McBride and Caan’s munitions merchants to a remote village to complete a sale. On that mission, he’s accompanied by Bruce Willis’s gruff military grunt, a featureless character whose purpose in this odyssey is as ill-defined as the plot’s trajectory is all over the place. Relieving himself in the desert one evening, Richie hears a girl singing in a cave, and before long, he’s convincing the beauty, named Salima (Leem Lubany), to compete on her favorite show – “Afghan Star,” a variation of “American Idol” – despite the fact that it goes against her father’s, and culture’s, ideas about women’s proper societal roles.
Though nominally inspired by real-life events, “Rock the Kasbah” collapses into abject disorder. Richie solves one problem after another with almost supernatural ease, getting Salima on TV with a few persuasive arguments and then, after his plans for Salima’s international fame go awry, finding a means to make things right with a little luck, a lot of courage, and some clichéd pep-talk encouragement from Hudson’s top-hatted whore-with-a-heart-of-gold. It’s the stuff of pure fantasy, though what’s truly frustrating is that, at virtually every turn, the film moves its story along via such carelessly convenient contrivances that not a single second of it comes off as credible, much less compelling.
The film’s disregard for basic plot lucidity either stems from contempt for its audience, or from post-production decisions aimed at making something, anything, out of nothing. Regardless, populated by one-dimensional characters who simply operate as plot devices (including Salima and Richie’s young daughter), and featuring a laugh-free script that’s too slack to even bother making a point about East-West relations – instead falling back on tired white-savior nonsense – it’s a disaster whose every comedic and dramatic gesture lands with a rock-like thud. [C-]