Directed by the masterful, and Oscar winning, Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam) from a script by Mitch Glazer (Scrooged, The Recruit) and starring Oscar Nominee Bill Murray, “Rock the Kasbah” is an eclectic mix of Murray, Afghanistan, dodgy American businessmen and the wonder of televised talent shows.
Murray is Richie Lanz, a small-time talent manager and hustler (he cons a prospective client out of a bit of money at the start of the film) who has one singer on his roster; Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) who he books in an Afghanistan tour with the USO. Lanz claims to have discovered Madonna and interacted with luminaries like Stevie Nicks.
Once in the country, Lanz and Ronnie discover their luggage never arrived and a nervous Ronnie gets drunk while hanging out with Bombay Bill (Bruce Willis). On the first day Ronnie splits with Richie’s money, plane tickets and passport. The manager is befriended by two arms dealers, Danny McBride and Scott Caan who set him up to be the patsy in a dodgy ammunition sale.
In the desert Richie finds a hidden talent, a local girl who can really sing; in English. He hatches a plot to have her perform on the talent show Afghan Star; a singing competition that women are banned from taking part in. His new business partner, Kate Hudson channelling her inner (modern) Mae West helps Lanz to get his new discovery; Salima (Leem Lubany) on the show while turning the country on its head.
“Rock the Kasbah” was hammered by the critics when it came out last year and died a dismal death at the box office. The movie going public stayed away in droves and the film is largely seen as a flop.
There is a sly message hidden in the mastery of Murray and co’s performances. Buried in the story is the reality of Americans abroad and at home: They are, xenophobic snobs of the finest order who have little knowledge of other cultures or countries and have the elitist attitude that if it is not their view of life, or taking place within their borders, it does not count or matter.
It is this inability to place themselves in the other chap’s shoes that brought about the rise of the “ugly American” that all G.I.s are briefed about when they enter a foreign country. While the film is a comedy it is no surprise that it expired a quick death. Xenophobes often do not like to be reminded of their shortcomings.
As one writer pointed out in their review of the film, the movie utilizes certain stereotypes to make its point. This works precisely because of the apathetic ignorance the average citizen has about other cultures. Having to rely upon media to present the Afghanistan people from a clearly biased viewpoint leads to the necessity of stereotypes to make the film work.
Granted the tale is far fetched and the “true incident” that inspired the film reveals that the premise of women not being allowed to participate in the talent show to be a falsehood. However, there is some validity in their poetic license. (Stick around till the credits roll and wait for the dedication, then head to Google. All will become clear.)
Murray does his usual job of being an irascible hustler who is equal parts bulls*t and optimism. Not on par with his “St. Vincent” performance in 2014, it is, nonetheless worthy of watching; all the more so if one is a fan of the actor’s work. (Neither does the part reflect the eclectic genius so evident in “Lost in Translation” the film that netted Murray the Oscar nomination.)
Kate Hudson is brilliant in her part as the hooker set to retire from her proceeds from the area and Bruce Willis turns in his usual high level cameo performance.
“Rock the Kasbah” is not a laugh riot, it is more a black comedy than a straight up chuckle fest that features a solid turn by Murray and a capable supporting cast. (It has more than a little in common with the 2008 John Cusack film “War Inc.” which was also deemed a flop and hammered by critics.)
A 3.5 out of 5 stars for a film that entertains and proves to be oddly watchable. It is streaming on Netflix at the moment and at one hour and 46 minutes this R rated feature is worth a look. It is, after all, helmed by the Oscar winning Levinson who has a splendid track record.