To start with the obvious: no, there are no kasbah’s in Afghanistan. The writer was sufficiently attached to the rock-reference title that early in the film, a joke was written into the script to establish that fact, yet allow the term ‘rock the kasbah’ to be repeated. A bad sign of things to come.
I like Bill Murray, and have since he was doing comedy sketches on TV in the 1970s. He makes even weak comedies successful, and does good work on his more dramatic films, such as Lost in Translation or Broken Flowers. But this one was a disappointment, which Murray had no hope of saving. Director Barry Levinson has done far better work in the past (Rain Man, Wag the Dog) but screenwriter Mitch Glazer is the main culprit here; his scripts have generally been mediocre, and he runs true to form with Rock the Kasbah.
The plot is loosely based on events relating to an Afghani talent show called Afghan Star. Bill Murray plays Richie Lanz, a former tour manager for rock musicians, whose career has declined until he is reduced to booking untalented beginners for birthday parties. He takes refuge in nostalgia and pathetic name-dropping. His assistant Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) is a talented singer, but Richie no longer has the influence to get her work. Low on money and with few options, he convinces a reluctant Zooey to travel with him to Afghanistan to perform at a military base.
Murray’s opening scenes make good use of his usual deadpan sarcasm and veiled insults, and he deftly minimizes the horror of occupied Kabul, assuring Ronnie that it is “like Aspen, only in wartime.” He is typically furious but stoic when Ronnie panics and runs off, taking Richie’s wallet and passport with her. From here, however, Murray’s performance begins to sink under the weight of the bad dialogue and uninspired plot.
Kabul is shown as a dangerous militarised zone with extremely minimal amenities, where the U.S. army base supports a nightclub and an unofficial brothel. There, Richie meets Merci (Kate Hudson), an American prostitute, and becomes her customer, friend, and sometime business partner, apparently for no better reason than to introduce a character for Murray to bounce his lines off.
Left stranded in Kabul, Riche deals with a shabby hotel, insanely violent and corrupt American soldiers, and a badly disrupted city – all highly exaggerated for comic effect. While waiting for his passport to be replaced, Richie learns of the popular audition programme, Afghan Star.
At this point, the film digresses into a rather contrived situation, in which Richie agrees to deliver weapons to a U.S.-allied tribal leader. Murray is given farfetched and silly dialogue, and moves rapidly from terror of the Pashtun people he is sent to barter with, to spontaneously serenading them with rock music over tea. The Pashtun themselves are portrayed as uninformed, hyperbolic cartoon Arabs. Richie overhears a young woman named Salima (Leem Lubany) singing, is greatly impressed, and although informed that Pashtun women are forbidden to sing in public, decides that fate has led him to manage the girl’s career. Salima’s family angrily reject his offer and send him away – the dialogue here is ridiculous – but Salima hides in the trunk of Richie’s car, determined to become a singer as she believes it is her calling, explaining this in a mishmash of naive, quasi-religious terminology.
With Richie’s help, Salima becomes the first female contestant on Afghan Star. There is controversy, not only because she is a woman, but because she also performs a song in English. Her family arrives to take her home; but in spite of public outrage, and with some advertising efforts from Richie, Salima wins the popular vote and becomes a semi-finalist.
Salima’s win leads directly to a highly convoluted plotline in which the Pashtun are pacified with gifts, and Richie implausibly assists in negotiations with an enemy warlord. The scene ends with gunfire, and the film cuts immediately to a scene of Salima once more singing on stage in the Afghan Star finals. All opposition from her family is mysteriously gone, and she is suddenly accepted nationwide as a star and a role model for women. No explanation is given for this national change of heart, and her final song before a cheering crowd concludes the film.
There are few high points in this film. It does not even have a particularly great soundtrack, which is one feature that a music-themed movie ought to provide, if nothing else. The most positive elements are the all-star cast, consisting of Murray, Bruce Willis, Kate Hudson, and Zooey Deschanel. Unfortunately, they are underused – especially Deschanel, who has a very minor role that ends early in the film – and are left to make the best of stock characters and unrealistic dialogue. Leem Lubany does her own singing in Salima’s performances, and has a wonderful voice; but her acting is weighed down by the same bad writing which plagues most of the story.
Bill Murray fans can look forward to better things – Murray is currently working on another Wes Anderson film – and see this as an unfortunate bump in the road.