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‘Rock the Kasbah’ is amusing but hollow

By Rich Bonaduce, Standard-Examiner Correspondent - | Oct 22, 2015
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Bill Murray as Richie Lanz in "Rock the Kasbah"

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Bruce Willis as Bombay Brian and Zooey Deschanel as Ronnie in "Rock the Kasbah"

“Rock the Kasbah” is another vehicle for Bill Murray penned by Mitch Glazer (“Scrooged, 1988), and directed by politically minded Barry Levinson (“Wag the Dog,” “Sleepers,” “Good Morning Vietnam”), but it doesn’t quite have the cleverness of Glazer’s earlier efforts or the heft of Levinson’s. But the cast and dialogue still provide a decent and humorous ride through a cultural clash of civilizations.

Filmed in Morocco and Afghanistan, “Rock the Kasbah” is replete with layers of shots at Americans, with even the title playing up the ignorance of Bill Murray’s character, Ritchie Lanz, a down-on-his-luck promotional manager for bands you’ve probably never heard of. From the opening sequence involving the best audition ever by an unknown musical “talent” with a gift for over-enunciation, Murray is in fine form, taking his usual shtick to the next level. In fact, many of the lines only work because of his delivery, and I’m not sure if they would have worked so well coming out of anyone else’s mouth. Murray also has a way of making even the everyday line comical, injecting more humor into the film than was maybe present on the page.

Lanz is trying to promote his latest discovery, Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel), another woman of questionable talent who only sounds good if you’ve had a few too many to drink. Luckily, a talent scout for USO shows likes to drink, and likes Ronnie, too; he thinks she’d be a great addition to his tour in Afghanistan. With few options, desperation proves to be the true mother of invention and Ritchie and Ronnie are soon on their way to a warzone, complete with dilapidated hotels without running water, and dirt streets with armed checkpoints. Stereotypical, possibly; but sadly also accurate… as are most of the stereotypes the film leans upon during its 100-minute runtime.

But the sickness inducing airplane ride and the death defying hotel check-in prove to be way too much for Ronnie. With the help of crazed mercenary Bombay Brian (Bruce Willis), she absconds with Ritchie’s money and his passport, leaving him stuck in Kabul with no resources, no talent to promote, and no way home; and at the tender mercies of Bombay Brian and a perennial hooker with a heart of gold, Miss Merci (Kate Hudson, looking amazing).

Ritchie’s golden ears eventually pick up on a golden voice; a local talent, young Salima (Leem Lubany) who yearns to be discovered on Afghan Star (think “American Idol” with less money and lower production standards). Ritchie is all too happy to accommodate her, but there’s a one problem among many – women are not allowed to sing under Taliban rule, especially on TV. Putting her on the stage may get her killed, as well as Ritchie and his interpreter, Riza (Arian Moayed). Further, Salima’s father is also targeted for death as his own men seek to overthrow him as village leader.

It’s a lot to take in, but it’s well laid-out by Glazer’s script. It’s (very) loosely based the real-life story of Lima Sahar, herself the subject of a critically acclaimed documentary “Afghan Star,” and whose life is now under threat for singing on the show. All heavy issues to be sure, but with Glazer’s script and Murray’s delivery (to say nothing of the supporting cast), all of this is dealt with in a comedic fashion that largely works. The stereotypes abound yes; but anyone who says they don’t hold water have never been in Afghanistan. The underground nightclubs, the checkpoints that turn hostile on a dime, the mercenaries who profit from pain all too real. As Glazer states through his drunken USO organizer, we’re at war, and “the faucet is open!” The military industrial complex is in full swing, and some live and die by it. The juxtaposition of the winners and losers in that struggle are everywhere onscreen, and balance out the levity that Murray brings. And like watching Sam Rockwell dance, any reason to hear Bill Murray “sing” is a good one, just not a great one.


  • THE FILM: ‘Rock the Kasbah'
  • CRITIC RATING: **1/2 stars
  • STARRING: Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel, Scott Caan, Danny McBride
  • BEHIND THE SCENES: Shia LaBeouf was originally cast, but ultimately backed out. It’s the second movie with Bruce Willis & Bill Murray. They were both in Moonrise Kingdom (2012).
  • PLAYING: Layton Hills 9, Cinemark Farmington, Layton Tinseltown, Newgate Tinseltown
  • MPAA RATING: Rated R for language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence. 100 minutes.


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