Film and TV

Afghan War Comedy Rock the Kasbah Is Pretty Much Just Bill Murray in Kabul

Quick! Name the movie where Bill Murray plays a proudly shabby dude who acts like a prick for an hour, and then, for reasons of narrative convention rather than character-based truth, shambles toward either heroism or some vague be-nicer enlightenment.

Maybe a tougher challenge would be to name the Bill Murray movie where that doesn’t happen. Whether his sleepy-eyed hero is saving New York, his platoon, or something more like his own threadbare soul, Murray movies mostly hold to the template, whether they’re playing in the cineplex or the arthouse. In the final moments of last year’s miserable St. Vincent, his cantankerous bastard drunk is actually hauled on stage at an elementary-school assembly and treated by local parents to a standing ovation, all just for being himself — a guy who in real life you would detest.

The wearying thing about this? In those scenes where he’s a prick, Murray can still be an unsavory delight. He’s quite funny as St. Vincent’s cartoon monster, right up until the movie starts insisting that we have to believe in this guy, too, just the way an Adam Sandler picture would.

But even that doesn’t hold true in most of the listless and haphazard Rock the Kasbah. Here the Murray formula crashes into another tired pattern: Hollywood’s insistence on reframing fascinating global stories so that they center on white American dudes of vision. Just as Jon Hamm’s sports agent became the hero of the film about the first baseball players from India to sign a professional contract, in Kasbah Murray plays a bottomed-out tour manager who manages, with Western pluck, to get a female contestant (Leem Lubany) onto Afghan Star, a localized riff on American Idol.

The story is inspired, in some faint way, by Lima Sahar, the Pashtun woman who in 2008 actually accomplished the feat that Rock the Kasbah builds toward. But the movie is as interested in her as Murray has been in making Ghostbusters 3. Instead, Kasbah is mostly Murray bumbling through Kabul and the surrounding desert, wrangling an unpromising American singer (Zooey Deschanel), hooking up with a heart-of-gold hooker (Kate Hudson), getting roped into a gun-running deal with a high-strung mercenary (Bruce Willis), and holler-singing “Smoke on the Water” at a dinner in the compound of an Afghan warlord.

Sometimes, Murray’s character — a liar named Richie Lanz who’s supposed to win us all over — behaves like a person, disguising his fear and uncertainty through all-American hustle and dealmaking. His best scene comes during a midnight joyride through Kabul with military contractors and arms dealers whose leader is played by Danny McBride. Locals with guns stop the American’s car and demand to see some papers; Lanz, stoned and freaked, stands up and speaks tense nonsense in an attempt to smooth things over. He fails.

In other scenes, though, he’s inscrutable. In that warlord’s home, power-chording on a rubab in front of men he believes want to kill him, is he attempting to win them over? Confound them? Score some point against them that only he understands? The film often plays like everyone making it agreed that some on-set idea was so funny it had to be included, whether or not it suited the story.

Some of those ideas work, in the moment. Willis is funny as an annoyed tough guy who keeps getting talked into bad situations by motormouth Lanz, and Deschanel is excellent in her few scenes as a sloppy karaoke trainwreck. But the story wanders as aimlessly as Lanz seems to.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl