CINEMA: Shareef Don’t Like It



ROCK THE KASBAH (2015, directed by Barry Levinson, 100 minutes, U.S.)

Buskirk AvatarBY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Barry Levinson has unleashed what must be in the running for the worst-reviewed film of his career, a wartime Afghanistan romp with the Clash-inspired title Rock the Kasbah, starring Bill Murray as a washed-up rock tour manager sent to Afghanistan. You can see what drew excitement for the project; a chance for Levinson to tap into themes from his previous hits Good Morning Vietnam and Wag the Dog, a chance for Murray to poke fun at the military like in Stripes and a chance to do something politically relevant to our moment in time. This movie could be great!

It’s not, and in fact it is kind of tragically bad. Unfocused, sporadically funny and ultimately dripping with unearned sentiment, Rock the Kasbah’s biggest crime might be draining our goodwill for Bill Murray in a film that all-too accurately portrays America’s delusional and racist disconnect from our wars in the Middle East. Rock The Kasbah may be a cinematic disaster, but it is probably the sort of comedic bomb we deserve.

The movie starts off looking game. The washed-up tour manager role is made for Murray (Scrooged screenwriter Mitch Glazer wrote it specifically as a Murray vehicle) and while the role of Richie Lanz may fit Murray a little too snugly, the actor is still is a joy to watch in con-man action. Richie is representing his last client, singer Ronnie (Zooey “Otter’s Mom” Deschanel) at a dive bar when he happens to come across a military talent scout who signs Ronnie up for a USO tour. Ronnie is the only person in the film with which Richie works up much of a chemistry so it is a surprise when she drops out of the film after twenty minutes never to be seen again.

Ronnie has left Murphy’s Richie without money or a passport so he is forced into a journey through the underside of Afghanistan, usually in the company of armed contractors moving furtively amongst angry throngs of faceless Arab men. Along the way, Richie is threatened by a mercenary played by Bruce Willis. Willis plays the role with a level of commitment you might expect if he were doing a skit on Letterman.

Richie also meets Merci, an unlikely prostitute with a heart of gold, full of wisdom and spiritual advice, all while servicing an endless string of working schlubs who are literally lined up twenty deep outside her double-wide trailer. The actress playing Merci has had so much plastic surgery I could not tell if it was Diane Lane or Kate Hudson. Turns out it was Kate Hudson, Hollywood’s idea of a perfect match for Murray since she’s only thirty years younger.

Like the second Sex and the City movie’s ill-founded decision to set the film in Dubai, you have to doubt the wisdom of placing a dumb-ass, broad comedy into the Middle East we have created. Watching Murray clown after a roadside bombing, or watching Danny McBride stick out a middle finger during a zany injury-free firefight allows great unease to set in for anyone who has taken the time to grasp the ramifications of our recent Afghan hospital bombing and Obama’s re-commitment to seemingly endless war in the country. Could a comedy be set in Afghanistan? Sure, one with a sure sense of satire and history but Rock The Kasbah is just as tone-deaf and ill-advised as the very war in which it is set.

After the glib comedy runs out, the second half dares to be a female empowerment story with Richie discovering a Cat Stevens-singing young woman belting it out in a near-by cave. Can Richie help her overcome tradition and death threats as he steers her through Afghanistan’s American Idol (aka Afghan Star) competition? Well I’ll just say Rock The Kasbah isn’t the sort of film that wants to let its audience down. Maybe the military needs just a little more time to bring some sort of Westernized democracy to Middle East but at least a swinging guy like Bill Murray can set ’em free one person at a time. I don’t know if you can sell a movie on that premise but it continues to be how we sell our longest-running war.