Rock the Kasbah Is Flat and Off the Beat

Rock the Kasbah is not about the doors. Photo: Kerry Brown

In the weirdly dreadful Bill Murray–goes-to-Afghanistan comedy Rock the Kasbah, Murray plays a broke, sleazy music-tour manager who somehow enables an oppressed Pashtun woman in a hijab to get on an American Idol–style TV show (Afghan Star, which actually exists) and strike a blow for female self-expression.

Why is Murray’s character, Richie Lanz, in Pashtun country? He hears that he can make a boatload of money providing entertainment for the troops, so he drags his whiny new protégé ,Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel in tight leopard-skin pants), onto a plane and enters a roiling society, split down the middle between gung-ho hedonism and murderous fundamentalism.

When Ronnie is liberated by a sympathetic mercenary (a cameo by Bruce Willis, who doesn’t have to smirk to seem smirky — it’s in his DNA), Richie is left high and dry (literally — he’s in the high desert). But then he hears Salima (the Palestinian actress Leem Lubany), a closeted Afghan Star buff who does her smoky vocals in a makeshift tent behind some rocks. (Salima covers her hair and flees in horror when Richie approaches — but she’d been singing so loudly, it’s a wonder the Taliban hadn’t already obliterated her with an RPG.) First, Richie exhorts the frightened Salima to go to Kabul to be on Afghan Star. Then Salima exhorts the frightened Richie — who has amscrayed after meeting her fierce Pashtun father — to help her after all. Then Richie exhorts the frightened Salima — who got spooked by the collective Afghan rage at her daring to sing on TV — to come back to Kabul for the finals. These comic reversals move at the speed of tectonic plates.

Rock the Kasbah carries a dedication to Setara Hussainzada, who did come out from under her hijab in her final performance on Afghan Star, but the Pashtun contestant that year was another female, Lema Sahar. The excellent 2009 documentary Afghan Star chronicles the show’s tumultuous existence — and suggests that Rock the Kasbah exaggerates the paucity of women on the show. After the U.S. drove the Taliban out of Kabul, Afghan Star became a symbol of the return of secular culture.

Murray is a symbol of secularism and antiauthoritarianism, too, and his Richie Lanz bears a resemblance to his heroes in Meatballs and Ghostbusters. Except that 30 years on, his deadpan-hipster stylings seem as moldy as the word hipster. Or maybe they seem like enervated camp because the director, Barry Levinson, doesn’t shoot or pace Rock the Kasbah as if it’s a broad comedy. Levinson saturates the movie in hopelessness, lingering on landscapes that look as hospitable as concrete. He goes halfway towards evoking The Verdict — a heavy redemption melodrama in which a lost loser recovers his integrity in the name of social justice.

The air of mourning might have worked as a counterpoint to the silliness if Mitch Glazer’s script had smart gags, but as one-liner after one-liner misses its mark, you begin to feel sorry for Murray, who’s really too old to be playing a guy who has a little daughter (not granddaughter) and likes to get kinky with Kate Hudson as a raucous, Dolly Parton–style hooker-businesswoman.

You feel sorry for Levinson, too, and maybe for yourself if you were alive when Murray became the epicenter of cool and when Robin Williams in Levinson’s Good Morning, Vietnam made gonzo look like a humanitarian export. Rock the Kasbah ends up being an unintentional elegy for a time when American pop culture and its hipster icons looked powerful enough to conquer religious and/or ideological fanaticism and transform nations. That illusion doesn’t play the way it did back in the Reagan era, when many of us thought rock songs and materialist TV shows helped raise the Iron Curtain, lower the Berlin Wall, and liberate women from enslavement by the church and the mosque. We thought the shareef wouldn’t like it, but that mostly he’d just froth like Dean Wormer instead of cutting off heads.

I guess it’s a gesture towards conciliation between lifestyles that instead of singing sizzling pop songs, Salima performs two gentle numbers ("Wild World" and "Peace Train") by the famous convert Yusuf Islam, once known as Cat Stevens. As if Peace Train could rock the Casbah! You leave thinking, The sharif isn’t the only one who won’t like it.