Movie Review: ‘ROCK THE KASBAH’ Deserves No Encore

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Jared McMillan // Film Critic

ROCK THE KASBAH | 100 min | R
Director: Barry Levinson
Cast: Bill Murray, Leem Lubany, Zooey Deschanel, Bruce Willis, Kate Hudson, Scott Caan and Danny McBride

The music industry today is something that thrives on the proverbial flash-in-the-pan. More often than not, we have an abundance of one-hit wonders at our disposal, regardless of the genre they’re in. Because we live in a world where success is measured by the amount of $0.99 singles, it’s important to get that one hit in so the labels make cash. This is further perpetuated by the reality television setting that’s evolved over the past decade.

Shows like American Idol and The Voice use the connection the audience has with their contestants and capitalize as soon as possible. For instance, with The Voice, they’ll put the cover the contestant sang in competition on iTunes once the show is over. They are able to make a quick buck, whether or not that contestant wins. It’s cashing in on the contestant’s dream that’s important, not the actual outcome of that dream. This, I believe, is the satirical message at the heart of ROCK THE KASBAH, although there is a difficult time getting to this understanding.

The opening sequence establishes that a young Afghan woman, who we later find out is named Salima (Leem Lubany), sneaks off to a cave in order to watch a show called Afghan Star, which is their version of American Idol. As her eyes linger on the screen through her hijab, we know that it is her dream to sing. We then meet Richie Lanz (Bill Murray), a washed-up manager who is resigned to swindle talentless people to make a buck. After a USO tour falls in his lap, he takes his #1 (and maybe only) client Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) to Afghanistan; she gets cold feet however and leaves him stranded.

Needing some money in a hurry, he decides to help Jake and Nick (Scott Caan and Danny McBride) run some ammo to a Pashtun village. While trying to negotiate with their sharif, Tariq (Fahim Fazli), he gets invited to break bread and seal the deal. It is in this village that he hears a beautiful voice coming from a cave, and it is Salima; Salima is also Tariq’s daughter, so it is forbidden for her to sing. Her determination to be on Afghan Star leads her to secretly strike a deal with Richie to be her manager. They make their way back to Kabul to set a course for destiny.

Right, Bill Murray is Richie Lanz in ROCK THE KASBAH. Photo courtesy of Open Road Films.

Right, Bill Murray is Richie Lanz in ROCK THE KASBAH. Photo courtesy of Open Road Films.

Right off the bat, I had this feeling that the movie was trying to get to its points without showing the entire path. Everything just sort of happens without actually having any build, and that left me with a hollow viewing. I couldn’t really connect on what this movie was meant to do. And while the performances aren’t bad, there isn’t any base for me to stand on as I build them in my mind. Salima is supposed to be going against religious tradition in order to achieve her dream, but I never have a strong sense of hope for her.

Also, ROCK THE KASBAH is clearly Richie’s movie, as the side characters are drawn so shallow. However, Richie isn’t even fully fleshed out in order to look past his flaws. Everyone he comes into contact with gives him a quick fix. Ronnie is used to get money, Jake and Nick are a quick fix for cash; even his best relationship is with a prostitute named Merci (Kate Hudson, who shines in the movie) is just a quick fix. He is a selfish con-man, and that never changes throughout the entire narrative.

I tend to lean on the idea that it’s a satire of how the American music industry tends to latch onto those musicians that are most unfortunate for personal gain. The satire is strengthened by the fact that Richie never really changes his perception. He is constantly trying to push Salima into the limelight, regardless of the long-term consequences. Director Barry Levinson, who does his best work when guiding dry humor, does well to create as much of a juxtaposition in the relationship between Richie and Salima. Richie sees her as his personal savior, while the Afghan women see her as a symbol of change.

The direction can’t come through though if the screenplay can’t support it, and that’s the ultimate downfall of ROCK THE KASBAH. The dialogue is unnecessarily sparse, and, for a movie where Bill Murray is the center, makes the leading man look terrible. The story itself is a mess; it was like watching dots with only some of them connected. The performances aren’t bad, but they have no material to work with. I get the heart of what the movie is supposed to be, but it forsakes its intelligence to get there.

ROCK THE KASBAH opens today.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.