Rock the Kasbah fails in its fish-out-of-water tale in the same way Lost in Translation succeeded.
There’s a scene in Lost in Translation where Bill Murray, surrounded by a Japanese culture that’s strange and foreign to him, sings karaoke. Goaded by a pink-wigged Scarlett Johansson, Murray earnestly intones Roxy Music’s “More than This.” The regret and longing Murray brings not only to this song but to the entire role of Bob Harris, a quasi-version of himself, makes Lost in Translation arguably his finest performance. In his newest film, Rock the Kasbah, Murray again finds himself in a foreign land with all eyes on him as he sings in front of a group. In this case, it’s a remote village in war-torn Afghanistan, and he belts out “Smoke on the Water” to his turbaned audience with the same abandon as his Nick the lounge singer character on “SNL.” The stone-faced village folk don’t seem to know what to make of him, and this is somehow supposed to be a joke.
This scene is emblematic of how Rock the Kasbah fails in its fish-out-of-water tale in the same way Lost in Translation succeeded. Here, Murray is Richie Lanz, a down-on-his-luck rock ‘n’ roll manager who drags his last client (Zooey Deschanel), a glorified karaoke singer, to Afghanistan at the promise of making some bank by opening for legitimate pop stars at a USO show. With Deschanel’s frazzled character ditching him almost instantly, Richie is stranded without money or a passport and has to be bailed out by another onetime manic pixie dream girl, Kate Hudson, here playing a Southern-accented American prostitute named Merci . She says things like “I can fuck you like a mouseketeer on crack,” and again, this is apparently meant to be funny—as is Murray waking up, slathered in lipstick, adorned in a Marilyn Monroe wig and tied to a bed.
From there, a cash-waving Danny McBride gets Richie involved in a shady ammo sale to a remote village that’s at the mercy of warlords. Accompanied by an Afghan taxi driver (Arian Moayed) and a mercenary played by Bruce Willis (who has been promised connections for a book deal) Richie is forced to stay the night at the home of the village elder (Fahim Fazli). Here he gives his karaoke performance while badly strumming that simple Deep Purple riff on a traditional Afghan instrument. During the night, Richie steps out to relieve himself and happens to overhear the village leader’s daughter, Salima (Leem Lubany), singing in English from a cave. Richie sees this as fate and spends the remainder of the film trying to get Salima on the fundamentalist country’s most popular TV show, an “American Idol” copycat called “Afghan Star,” on which female performances are forbidden.
Director Barry Levinson manages to capture some truly breathtaking desert mountain scenery. Despite basically playing himself yet again, Bill Murray is a likable enough performer to carry the seemingly aimless Rock the Kasbah. But the film is as tonally uneven as Afghanistan’s topography. Murray’s Richie is a smarmy, shallow character whose eventual heart-bearing feels entirely perfunctory. Mitch Glazer’s script can’t wring comedy from perhaps the most humorless area of the planet, and it seems to have a hard enough time setting up scenes that are the least bit moving one way or the other.
Despite an intriguing premise, Rock the Kasbah utterly fails as a music film. Things go south early as Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba” gets a protracted play during Richie’s first rushed transport through the chaotic streets of Kabul. (As he rides around with weed-smoking and gun-toting Danny McBride and Scott Caan, it’s a wonder that M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” doesn’t break in.) Later, we hear Shakira singing the Spanish-language counterpart to “Whenever, Wherever” (“Suerte”) as though any random foreign language will make Rock the Kasbah more authentic. Top it off with a couple Cat Stevens tunes sung by the Salima character, and you’ve got a soundtrack that’s as all over the board as the movie.
The greatest disgrace of this inconsistent farce is that it is (extremely) loosely based on the story of Setara Hussainzada, an Afghan woman who defied the Taliban and performed on “Afghan Star,” prompting venom and death threats when she actually danced on television and removed her hijab. Hussainzada gets a namecheck at the end of the film, but this is entirely a vehicle for Murray to goof around with Levinson and Glazer’s bad material. If you actually care about the subjugation of women in Afghanistan as it relates to pop culture, watch the fascinating 2009 documentary Afghan Star or its HBO2 follow-up Silencing the Song, which details how Hussainzada must now stay out of the public eye and can’t leave her home without being armed. If you want to watch Bill Murray romp around a foreign land in a film that can be both funny and moving (and most importantly, one that actually makes sense), watch Lost in Translation again. If you want to get a scattered, watered-down cocktail of both, by all means, go see Rock the Kasbah.