Barry Levinson's Rock the Kasbah is centered around a ne'er-do-well aging rascal in need of a spiritual rebirth by way of a revelation. The character is right in the wheelhouse of the iconic Bill Murray, and the revelation comes in the form of a Western-music-loving Pashtun girl named Salima, who is obsessed with Afghanistan's version of American Idol/The Voice/The X Factor, Afghan Star. Murray's somewhat pathetic character is Richie Lanz, a talent manager well past his prime, who now cashes personal checks from deluded oddballs dreaming of stardom while spinning tall tales of his glory days with Madonna and Stevie Nicks. After meeting an exuberant, drunk talent booker effusively complimentary of his main act, Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel), as she does her covers of buzz ballads from the Nineties, it's off to Afghanistan to make money on the USO circuit. Long story short, Lanz finds himself stranded in Kabul, on a mission running ammunition for two charismatic, drugged-up American oddballs.
Following a munitions delivery with the mercenary attempting to blackmail Lanz providing transportation (a slightly bemused Bruce Willis), Lanz is welcomed back to the home of his customer, hears Salima singing while playing guitar and decides she is the star he never booked. So instead of returning to California, he looks for his last shot at glory while representing a girl singing English-language songs in Afghanistan, as a member of a culture and community that forbids women from singing. High jinks and life-threatening run-ins ensue.
Despite the potential for an amusing "cultures collide" story resulting in a learning experience for everyone, the Rock the Kasbah is nothing more than a selection of entertaining lines that are only tenuously connected within a reality that is paper-thin. Levinson, who has directed hits like Diner, The Natural and Rain Man, doesn't do much service to the already somewhat hacky script written by Mitch Glazer, his first filmed screenplay in five years. Genuine moments in dialogue between characters are rare, with most jokes set up and timed in the manner of a low-rent cable sitcom. Furthermore, the depiction of Afghanistan and its citizens is noticeably patronizing, as Richie's jingoistic, self-serving nature is inexplicably tolerated without him doing anything deserving of their respect in any meaningful way.
As evidenced by many of previous works, Levinson is a shrewd and capable director. His varying and highly eclectic soundtrack, which veers wildly from Cat Stevens to Shakira to House of Pain, seems quite odd at first, but actually does a solid job of giving the movie the mixture of madcap pace and emotional response it is seeking. Each scene is staged wonderfully, as the action ranges from an inexplicably ornate swimming-pool room in a hole-in-the-wall nightclub to the outdoor rocky expanse of Afghanistan, by way of Iran, which is where the majority of the picture was filmed. Bill Murray also provides at least some semblance of pathos and legitimate fun to a role that is poorly developed, selling the sad-sack Lanz to viewers through his trademark smirk and offbeat charisma while maintaining the character's innate sadness and shame.
Leem Lubany is a legitimate find as the singer Salima, and is smart to convey her strength without hamming it up, something a demure Pashtun girl in an intimidating environment would certainly shy away from. As the hooker who beds and befriends Lanz, Kate Hudson appears to be enjoying herself more in this movie than she has in any film in years. Scott Caan and Danny McBride are also fun as the accidental, unhinged arms dealers who are truly living it up in an active war zone. Deschanel and Willis, however, are both wasted here, as Ronnie is never given a personality other than sullen, whiny or drugged-out and Willis' Brian is seemingly there with only one instruction, which is to do his best John McClane impression.
With tensions still high between these two countries, the message trumpeted here of the American who comes in to make things better for this uptight foreign land is highly disingenuous and patronizing at best, and genuinely baffling and anger-inducing at worst. Rock the Kasbah is worth watching for fans of both Murray and Levinson, as well as anyone looking for what could possibly be Hudson's second-best performance after her now-legendary role in another music-based picture, Almost Famous. The film itself, however, while sometimes fun is no crowning achievement. It seems to not be able to decide whether it wants to be an inspiring message movie or winking satire, and its half-hearted attempts to meet in the middle result in a somewhat half-baked letdown.