Bill Murray is always in his element when he plays fish-out-of-water characters, and “Rock the Kasbah” provides him with another meaty misfit role.
In a sometimes funny film that has shadings of “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Broadway Danny Rose,” Murray plays Richie Lanz, a hapless talent agent who is bereft of talented clients — or virtually any clients, for that matter. He works out of a shabby office in Van Nuys, Calif., still waiting for his big break, and though he’s a delusional loser, we root for him in the same way that he roots for his pathetic portfolio of performers.
His rising star is a singer (Zooey Deschanel, hilarious) who couldn’t land a birthday party gig, let alone a recording contract. But improbably, she attracts the interest of a very drunk bar patron, who happens to book USO acts, and before we know it, Richie and his untalented crooner are off to entertain the troops — in Afghanistan.
Murray and Deschanel have excellent comic chemistry, and it’s a shame when she disappears so quickly, but her vanishing act is crucial to the plot: It leaves Murray stranded in Kabul with no money and no passport. That’s when he discovers a young Pashtun woman with a stunning voice — and a dangerous dream of defying tradition and becoming the first woman to sing on a TV show that is Afghanistan’s answer to “American Idol.”
“Rock the Kasbah” wants to be a little serious and very funny, but it doesn’t quite hit its mark in this regard. There is one beautifully surreal moment in which Richie, walking along the barren landscape at night, hears the sublime voice of teenager Salima (Leem Lubany, lovely) from a nearby cave. Richie knows a star when he hears one, and we think the film is about to take off, but it doesn’t.
That’s because the script lacks dramatic heft, and with the exception of Richie, well-developed characters. Director Barry Levinson (who helmed “Good Morning, Vietnam”) surrounds Murray with an appealing cast: Bruce Willis as a gun-toting mercenary; Kate Hudson as a business-savvy prostitute; and Scott Caan and Danny McBride as bullet dealers out to make a buck. But the screenplay doesn’t give these actors much to work with.
Most of the situations in the war-torn country are so preposterous that we don’t feel any sense of urgency, and we are left to settle for the intermittent laughs that come our way, almost always from Murray. We enjoy his comic genius when he tries to negotiate with Afghan village leaders (who don’t understand a word he says), or when he performs “Smoke on the Water” for them at a feast.
Levinson is careful not to make the Afghan people into buffoons, which is good, but it doesn’t change the fact that these folks are cardboard characters. Even the character of Salima, the young woman who changes Richie’s life with her incredible talent, is way underdeveloped, and we feel that Richie’s dealings with her are truncated.
Levinson knows how to whip up a rousing musical set-piece (the soundtrack here is enthralling), and Salima’s star turn is beautifully mounted. But the rousing finale almost seems tacked on, mainly because the story doesn’t fully come together. Murray does his best to hold up the movie, but there’s only so much he can do.