Whenever you see Bill Murray’s name in the credits of a movie, something inside you immediately wants to see that film. That is especially true if he is has a featured part or is the lead. Hell, even Garfield likely brought a few smiles to your face, and even led one Roger Ebert to give it three stars(!), largely on the charm of the sardonic actor voicing the comic cat. You can always count on Murray to deliver the funny.
In his latest film, Rock the Kasbah, directed by Academy Award winner Barry Levinson, Murray plays Richie Lanz, a down-on-his-luck rock and roll agent who is two months behind on his child support and bilking money from unsuspecting, talentless singers by promising them stardom. Lanz is down to one real client, a singer named Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) who plies her trade in karaoke bars whenever she isn’t acting as his secretary. He’s able to book her on a USO tour in Afghanistan after getting advice from a whiskey-swilling patron of the bar.
Almost immediately after arriving in Afghanistan, Lanz’s singer ditches him, utilizing a mercenary (Bruce Willis) to transport her out of the country. Meanwhile, Lanz befriends two American arms dealers (Danny McBride and Scott Caan) who offer to help him find his talent, taking him to a seedy nightclub where he meets a hooker named Merci (Kate Hudson) who has sex with him in exchange for a vintage Swatch. (Ronnie made off with Richie’s passport and cash.) Why would she do that? Obviously, because she has A Heart Of Gold. (Ugh.)
Yes, it is at this point in the movie we realize we are being introduced to stockpile characters so they can play key parts in driving the plot along later on in the film. After waking up from a mind-blowing night of sex with Merci, Richie eventually meets back up with the gun runners, who offer him a Deal He Can’t Refuse. Since he is broke and without a passport, they will give him loads of cash and help him at the American embassy if he helps broker a deal with some Pashtun villagers looking to buy ammunition. And, of course, Willis’ merc goes with him to do the deal.
This is all the big set-up for the main plot of the movie, Richie’s introduction to village girl Salima (Leem Lubany), who secretly sings Cat Stevens in a desert cave because it is forbidden by her people’s fundamentalist traditions. While pissing outside after brokering the arms deal over dinner with Salima’s father, Lanz hears her beautiful voice carry through the night air. This eventually leads to Richie and his trusty taxi-driver/interpreter Riza (Arian Moayed) taking Salima to Kabul so she can participate on Afghan Star, a sort-of American Idol for Afghanistan.
While the first third of the movie centered on a fish-out-of-water storyline, after the intro of Salima and her village’s culture, we are then thrust into a serious film dealing with the breaking of religious traditions and a young Afghan girl attempting to challenge the way her country treats women. Meanwhile, even though the story becomes about Salima risking life and death to sing in public, and the way it impacts her family and nation, the film instead treats her story as almost an afterthought in order to focus on Richie’s redemption arc.
Lubany is extremely charismatic as Salima, showing a lot of spirit and a lovely voice in what turns out to be a thankless role. The supporting cast is all enjoyable, as one would expect with this list of actors, but to call the characters cliched would do a disservice to the word. All in all, it feels like there were two different movies at work here and Levison and screenwriter Mitch Glazer just decided to meld them into one and see what would happen. Schticky comedy and serious social drama can work together, but it takes a deft hand and an exact approach. Sadly, that just didn’t happen here.
In the end, you’ll get a few laughs from the movie, and even a couple of tugs of the heart, however saccharine they might be. This movie isn’t a complete disaster and does have its moments, mainly due to Murray and his natural ability to make us smile. But it might be best to wait until it shows up late one night on cable before you give it a chance.