Humor meets hostility in “Rock the Kasbah”

Courtesy of Open Road Films.
Courtesy of Open Road Films.

 

“Rock the Kasbah” is not about The Clash. In fact, neither the British punk band nor their song “Rock the Casbah” are mentioned even once during the film. If that doesn’t peeve you, there is some entertainment value here, though mostly from Bill Murray’s interactions with his supporting cast. While the soundtrack is forgettable and a few scenes simply fall flat or are just awkward, the film’s plot manages to stand above any of its shortcomings.

Inspired by the true story of Lima Sahar, the first girl to appear on the singing competition show “Afghan Star” in Afghanistan, “Rock the Kasbah” follows Richie Lanz (Bill Murray), a washed-up old talent manager, whose desperation for opportunity leads him and his star singer Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) to pursue a gig in Afghanistan. Unfortunately for Lanz, Ronnie quickly abandons him as a result of being overwhelmed by the harsh war-torn environment and strict military presence. Stuck in Afghanistan without his wallet or passport (stolen by Ronnie), Lanz is forced to find a way home, until he finds a reason to stay in the form of a young Pashtun girl with an incredible voice. His goal to get her on Afghanistan’s version of American Idol, Afghan Star, puts both himself and the girl in the crosshairs of a group of Afghan Islamic guerilla fighters known as the Mujahideen, a risk he’s willing to take.

It feels like it’s been years since Murray has graced the silver screen with a notable leading performance, but if “Rock the Kasbah” is any indication, he’s still got it. This isn’t his best role by a longshot, but it’s refreshing to see him on screen after so long. His enthusiasm and sarcasm are clearly present, and as with most of his films he plays off of his supporting cast well. Bruce Willis’ character, the mercenary Bombay Brian, acts as a dark contrast to the uppity and sarcastic Lanz, and their scenes together, though infrequent, are some of the best. Deschanel’s role as Lanz’s singer Ronnie is brief and underwhelming, but Kate Hudson as the prostitute Merci and Arian Moayed as Riza the taxi driver and friend of Lanz worked well in their respective roles.

The soundtrack is nothing special, with some appropriate rock anthems, and at one point an incredibly awkward and likely alcohol-induced rendition of “Smoke On the Water” performed by Murray himself. Any remnants of an original score is completely forgettable, which is ironic for a movie named after a popular song.

Action-oriented scenes, which pop up surprisingly often for a movie advertised as a comedy, add a sense of grit and realism that grounds the story in the harsh reality in which it’s set. Practical effects, which aren’t so common in this age of sci-fi and superhero blockbusters, fit better here where any over-the-top special effects would have come off as cheesy. Car explosions and gunfights have weight and feel real, which is important to emphasize the contrast of humor and hostility throughout the film.

As a Murray movie, “Rock the Kasbah” is nothing special. In fact, it doesn’t even compare to some of the legendary movies he’s starred in. But as a film of its own merit, “Rock the Kasbah” offers an interesting story filled with references to contrasting cultural norms and a cast that plays well together. It isn’t a must-see, but for diehard fans of Murray, “Rock the Kasbah” isn’t a bad movie to waste an hour and 40 minutes on.

Rating: 3 stars

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