That noise you hear is the sound of Elaine May celebrating. She’s no longer the architect of Hollywood’s most ill-conceived Middle East comedy. That’s an exaggeration, of course, as Rock the Kasbah never reaches the goofy heights (or depths) of May’s notorious bomb, Ishtar. Still, it’s hard to imagine what legendary director Barry Levinson and uber-cool demigod Bill Murray were thinking. From the off-kilter script to the uneven performances, this movie is bafflingly bad. Even Murray seems adrift in what, presumably, started as a vehicle for his particular genius. Rock the Kasbah is 2015’s biggest head scratcher.
Perhaps through sheer will alone, Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man, Wag the Dog) still manages to keep Rock the Kasbah a fascinating failure. What begins as a raunchy, quasi-satirical road picture ends as a queasy tribute to “disgraced” Afghan Star contestant, Setara Hussainzada. Hussainzada’s 2007 appearance on the Afghan reality show ignited a firestorm of dissent when the undeniably-talented singer showed a bit too much feminine flair during her performance. Levinson uses this cultural turmoil as the backdrop for what is otherwise a pretty conventional redemption story.
The soul to be redeemed belongs to talent agent Richie Lanz (Murray). Richie operates on the outskirts of Hollywood, in a Van Nuys hotel room that’s seedy enough to short-circuit a black light. There, he bilks fame-starved singers into giving him $1200 for “expenses” and the promise of untold riches. “My handshake is my contract,” he solemnly swears, knowing damn well he has no intention of honoring his outrageous deals. Past triumphs, like Madonna and Danielle Steel (“I slept with her… twice!”), are a distant memory, as are the wife and daughter that he left behind. Richie needs to hitch a ride on the nearest star before he completely flames out.
Lured by the promise of big USO money, Richie takes his assistant (a surprisingly terrible Zooey Deschanel) on a musical tour of the war-ravaged Middle East. He encounters plenty of colorful ex-patriots, including two unscrupulous arms dealers (Danny McBride and Scott Caan), one stoic mercenary (Bruce Willis), and a hooker with a heart of gold (Kate Hudson). He also stumbles upon a beautiful young Afghan girl singing some Cat Stevens standards in a cave. That’s when Richie gets that old familiar itch (surprisingly, not hooker related); he will rescue Salima (Leem Lubany) from her cave and book her on the wildly popular talent show, Afghan Star. It’s the type of fevered plan that only sounds good to desperate (or drunk) minds.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Rock the Kasbah is the most tonally-awkward film of the year. It’s neither smart enough to be satire, nor dumb enough to mine the easy laughs. It’s too raunchy to be a redemptive feel-good story, yet too saccharine to appreciate its own delicious irony. The seeds of a wicked satire have been sown, but unlike his brilliant ‘90s wonk-fest, Wag the Dog, Levinson doesn’t have the luxury of screenwriter David Mamet to reap the harvest. Writer Mitch Glazer never finds the appropriate balance between humor and poignancy. While he has a flair for the absurd, as when McBride and Caan take Richie through the war-torn backstreets in quest of some exciting nightlife (“They put lights up around Christmas time… it’s really beautiful.”), none of it connects to anything. It all feels disjointed and episodic, like a sketch comedy… minus the comedy.
Once Richie finds Salima crooning in her cave, what little satire Levinson had constructed quickly crumbles away. It becomes a melodramatic story about family values and cultural fanaticism that feels more like handwringing than an actual provocation. This lack of venom makes for a decidedly limp affair. Making matters worse is the fact that Richie—Bill Murray notwithstanding—is a complete bore. Who is he? Does he want anything other than a 5-star client? We don’t learn anything about him until a heartfelt conversation with the barely-communicative Bruce Willis character. Bear in mind, this conversation takes place with only 10 minutes left in the film! Other than our natural affection for Murray, there’s literally nothing to hold our attention here.
Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of Rock the Kasbah is how befuddled Murray is with this material. He doesn’t know if he should ham it up, play it cool, or go for the heartstrings. Given the dearth of clear direction or character motivations, his confusion is understandable. To see such a gifted comedic actor completely neutralized is an unsettling, if not fascinating cinematic experience.
Murray isn’t the only actor who struggles. Kate Hudson does her best with the thankless hooker role, and she looks amazing, but this is not her finest hour. Willis seems so disinterest in acting at this point that he can’t even play himself convincingly. The Middle Eastern actors are reduced to shouting and scowling, so it’s difficult to gauge their performances. Lubany is radiant as Salima, but she’s primarily a symbol rather than a fully-realized character. The only actor to survive unscathed, as usual, is the amazing Danny McBride. He is effortlessly funny; the master of offhand quips and delicious smarm. When McBride makes an abrupt exit, the laughs go with him.
Baffling… that’s really the only word to describe Rock the Kasbah. Bill Murray fans have rarely seen their hero so adrift, and it’s difficult to imagine a renowned filmmaker like Barry Levinson being this far off the mark. It’s certainly not a boring ride, but it’s not a funny one, either. It’s just… baffling.