A Bill Murray – which is to say, a performer of particular stripes that enjoys almost unanimous affection from moviegoers – is a rare and precious thing. As much a performance artist these days as he is an actor, Murray himself has settled into being the communal whacky uncle on our mom’s side (dad’s is where you’ll find Tom Hanks). Murray is a piece of modern Americana, as close to a folk hero as Hollywood has ever produced, and it’s by his grace that many poorer projects find their silver lining. But like any legend, that reverence can be exploited to justify undertakings of odious construction and intent, which Murray’s latest film, Rock the Kasbah, most certainly is.
That this movie likely wouldn’t exist without Murray’s involvement makes it tempting to point an accusing finger squarely at him, but we’re all to blame here. Though Murray deftly transitioned from comic upstart (Meatballs), to institution (Ghostbusters), to dramatic actor (Lost in Translation) over thirty years in the industry, his case for sainthood hasn’t been maintained this last decade by sizeable new good works. Instead, a professional and personal life based around cameo appearances has made Murray less a man than a meme, one easy to admire in bite-sized chunks. So long as we still have Groundhog Day to rewatch, and he keeps acting like the special guest star on this show called Life, we’re willing to support Murray’s pursuits, whether they lead to a Netflix special, or a debatably earned Emmy award.
It’s from this well of fondness that Rock the Kasbah springs into existence – there is no means of imagining a movie this comically inept and disastrously scatterbrained escaping into the world without Murray’s name holding the door open. As written and lazily improvised satire, Rock the Kasbah is toothless, a wartime farce that awkwardly gums its tricky premise. As visual comedy, the jokes are Rock the Kasbah’s only predictable element, thanks to direction that varies erratically in lighting, coverage, and footage quality. As anything else, Rock the Kasbah is another excuse for director Barry Levinson to remind you, as he did in last year’s equally tone-deaf The Humbling, that underneath every callous show business hack is a softie just looking for some love.
As washed-up tour manager Richie Lanz, Murray is betrayed by a role that’s been written around him with the thinness and consistency of truck stop TP. After a life on the road that’s stalled into conning aspiring singers from the comfort of a Van Nuys motel, Richie’s sorry state of affairs (laid out in expository monologue not even Murray can salvage) quickly reveals itself as entirely deserved. As a businessman, he’s grossly incompetent, never finishing one deal before trying to seal another, and as a manager, he’s a bigger prima donna than any of his clients. Chancing his way into a USO tour in Kabul seems like the last bad decision this irritating burnout will ever get to make.
Yet everywhere Richie goes, people adore him. An English-speaking cab driver (Arian Moayed) chauffeurs Richie around Afghanistan, acting as a translator in many life-threatening situations without being compensated. A pair of arms traffickers (Danny McBride and Scott Caan) shepherd Richie through Kabul’s dangerous nightlife while sharing joint hits with the loveable fogey. Kate Hudson plays the proprietor and lone employee of a bunny ranch, and like everyone else, takes an immediate shine to Richie for no real reason. Her character sets up one of the film’s few genuine laughs, a moment of embarrassment for Murray that’s intentional, unlike a shrill rubab rendition of “Smoke of the Water” that feels as long as “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” or a nervous sing-along to Meredith Brooks that plays as though it’s the first time he’s ever heard her voice.
What screenwriter Mitch Glazer (who co-wrote Scrooged) assumes is that Murray’s presence will transcend not just the script’s paucity of actual jokes, but also the absurdity of the fiction Murray is being written into. The misguided thinking is that the star’s charm will offset the discomfort of seeing a clueless American bumble around a nation devastated by invasion and civil conflict. It doesn’t. There’s often a jarring disconnect between Richie’s goofball behaviour and the tension of everything else going on around him (“They’re blowing up goats. Must be a festival,” he quips after a city-rocking detonation). When a rare moment of violence affects Richie directly, your reaction is to be thankful he’s finally shut up for a moment.
After the interminable length of time needed to setup all the characters its plot will require (one that somehow involves Bruce Willis as a Danielle Steel-reading mercenary), Rock the Kasbah sees Richie representing a Pashtun girl on Afghanistan’s biggest TV singing competition. The girl with the golden voice, Salima (Leem Lubany), doesn’t exist beyond her usefulness to Richie, as her choice to ignore the taboo against Pashtun women singing is mainly framed through how it affects Richie. The faith guiding Salima along this dangerous path is mostly met with cocked eyebrows from her new manager, despite his own belief in a higher power being used at the film’s convenience to explain baffling plot decisions.
The nonsensical climax is a given by the time it arrives in Rock the Kasbah, but the gallingly sentimental denouement, which asks Afghanistan to do as Cat Stevens asked, and get on a peace train, is infuriating in its presumed accomplishment. What Rock the Kasbah mistakes for a “feel good” story is the cynical product of desperate stabs for relevance by all involved. Though the credits dedicate the film to Setara Hussainzada, a contestant on Afghan Star upon whom Salima was likely based (and comparisons to Pashtun activist Malala Yousafzai are inevitable), Rock the Kasbah is made for a more local group: it’s for all the aging producers, movie stars, and writers out there, those terrified that their generation’s music isn’t even on the classic rock stations anymore, as though it, and they never mattered.
The shareef won’t like it, but can you blame him? Rock the Kasbah is a dreadful excuse for a comedy that will make you question your faith in Bill Murray.