Barry Levinson’s new film Rock the Kasbah may not have been good if it had been released 11 years ago, but at least it would have felt timely. It would feature Bill Murray coming off one of his best performances (Lost in Translation) and the plot would deal with the War in the Middle East and drop in some American Idol, which was huge at the time. The film hasn’t been sitting on the shelf, but you can basically see the cobwebs in a moldy story that ignores its more interesting aspects in favor of Murray phoning it in, one-dimensional characters, and an offensive view of how Pashtun culture should behave. It’s a movie that believes that if Cat Stevens can be Yusuf Islam, there’s hope for world peace.
The story takes place in “the recent past” and follows Richie Lanz (Murray), a washed-up rock tour manager who thinks he’s found the path to riches with the USO in Afghanistan. When his flaky talent Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) flees in the middle of the night taking his money and passport (why she takes his passport makes no sense), Richie is stuck in Afghanistan. In order to expedite a new passport, he makes a deal with shady arms dealers Nick (Danny McBride) and Jake (Scott Caan), and agrees to run some ammo to a peaceful Pashtun village. While he’s there, he hears the secret singing of a local Pashtun woman, Salima (Leem Lubany), and believes he can make her a star on Afghanistan’s equivalent of American Idol, “Afghan Star”. Salima agrees to abscond with Richie and his helpful cab driver/translator Tariq (Fahim Fazli) for a chance to sing, and hides out in the trailer of hooker with a heart of gold, Merci (Kate Hudson), who’s a friend/business partner of Richie. He believes that if he can just get Salima on TV, then her father and all of Afghanistan will fall in love with her, and it will be a happy and profitable ending for everyone.
Rock the Kasbah is in tune with the kind of con job you could pull on the American public back in 2003, and make them believe that even if there weren’t weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that the whole reason we were in the Middle East was to bring peace and prosperity. It’s what happens when chanting “USA! USA!” turns into a dark mantra, and you believe our values can be brought to bear in any part of the globe no matter the difference in culture and history. But rather than wearing the noxious credo of “America or bust!” on its sleeve, Rock the Kasbah is couched in wishy-washy, “Aren’t we all just people?” nonsense that completely disrespects our fundamental differences that should be addressed and embraced rather than swept under the table.
Levinson’s film attempts to ignore any actual cultural clash by coasting on Murray’s charm, and I feel like we’ve been thrown back not to the height of his career resurrection, but to the time slightly before then—the mid-90s. This is Larger Than Life Murray, who just kind of shows up and does his thing, but doesn’t give you the nuanced performance you know he’s capable of delivering. It’s a shame because Murray has provided nice supporting work in duds like Aloha and The Monuments Men, but it now seems like if you put him front-and-center like with this movie or Hyde Park or Hudson, you get a caricature.
And here, the caricature is particularly offensive, because the career of one old white guy pales in comparison to his surroundings, which is a war-torn nation. I don’t really care if Richie finds his great hope, especially since every deal he makes after finding Salima doesn’t seem to involve any profits for her whatsoever. She’s just “the voice”, and I’d much rather see a film focused on a young Afghan woman who has a gift she has to stifle because of her family and culture’s beliefs. When Salima tells Richie, she believes God gave her gift to her, and that singing is a way to praise God, I want to see more of that. But this is Richie’s redemption story, so sorry, Salima. Just be pretty and sing.
The film also trips over an interesting subplot by how it mentions the backstories of Nick, Jake, and Merci. All three of them were down-and-out in America, but in Afghanistan they get to live like kings. Buried deep down in the script there’s an interesting idea about wealth disparity and how war creates fortunes, but Rock the Kasbah is hellbent on throwing out anything challenging or difficult for its audience, so Nick and Jake are reduced to lucky bumpkins and Merci is a stereotype building a nest egg by being local prostitute with men lined up outside her door. Almost everything is treated for light humor no matter the stakes or any semblance of reality.
Rock the Kasbah is a deeply cynical film, but not in a way that has any awareness of cultural differences or how our ongoing presence in Afghanistan has resulted in a military quagmire. Instead, it takes the same neocon beliefs of waving a magic wand to promote peace and harmony, and turns it into a movie. Rock the Kasbah would have been so perfect for 2004; it would have been pushing an asinine subtext, but at least it would have been timely. Now it’s not just wrong; it’s long past due.