The only thing that rocks about Rock The Kasbah are the ones you’ll want to throw at the screen. In form and content, plotting and politics, the film is egregiously disguised as a smug, inspirational piece, but in reality, it is the cinematic equivalent of being offered free hugs from Donald Trump. Rock The Kasbah wants to sing Kumbaya to Western audiences, avoiding the implications of its racial representations, gender politics and thematic messages, in a singalong meant to raise our spirits from the guilty feelings of contributing to Afghanistan’s troubles.
But c’mon, a fish-out-of-water comedy that stars everyone’s favorite uncle, Bill Murray, can’t be that harmful! We get to see the guy butcher Smoke On The Water at the top of his lungs, and even be bound to a bed with a wig and lipstick. He might even save the day by intervening in Afghan affairs by selling weapons to a group of fundamentalist villagers to defeat a warlord too. Aw shucks Uncle Bill, aren’t you a funny guy! Except for the last part, maybe just forget about that one.
Murray is Richie Lanz, a washed-up music manager who we’re first introduced inside a make-shift office at a drive-in motel room. He may be down on his luck and irresponsible, but we know we’re supposed to like the guy because he is a douche that sarcastically patronizes a bad singer during an audition. Don’t fret; she’s fat. It’s supposed to be funny.
Richie soon takes off to Afghanistan with Ronnie (Zoey Deschanel) – a drugged-up singer he represents – to play a few gigs at some venues in Kabul. But, when she takes off to Dubai with his passport and all of his money, Richie has to pay back an American mercenary (Bruce Willis) by being the middle-man in an arms deal with a local town that is going to be attacked by a war lord (for no apparent reason). Meanwhile, he has a fling with a local prostitute (Kate Hudson) and tries to convince a young woman with a “phenomenal” voice (she’s actually auto-tuned), to participate in Afghanistan’s version of American Idol. She can’t, though. Afghani customs forbid women from being on television.
No conflict is properly developed, and some of the film’s reels seem to have been lost along with Murray’s reading glasses. Scene to scene, Mitch Glazer’s screenplay has an undefined plot and a consistently inconsistent tone, but worse yet, the redundant dialogue avoids subtext like a landmine. Barry Levinson’s direction is somehow spellbindingly worse. There are laugh-out-loud formal choices and sound editing that would be barely appropriate for a high-school film class, a kind of bad filmmaking that could be endured for self-loathing catharsis; that’s only if the messages weren’t so confused and borderline racist.
Like being given a thank you card for punching someone in the face, Rock The Kasbah is designed to make us feel better about American intervention in the Afghanistan War. The group of villagers, who never develop beyond two-dimensional caricatures, are seen as sexist, violent and rash, but we’re supposed to care about their fate because, really, they’re good at heart. Their world has been ravaged by an extremist war lord (forget that they themselves are extremists), and they are the damsel in distress hopelessly waiting for the brawny American to intervene. They are incapable of saving themselves. We have to do it.
Similarly, the film’s representation of gender seems to be in conflict with itself, especially since a major thematic through-line is a critique of the sexism in this Islamic State. Women are horribly repressed and stripped of personal expression by being forced to wear burqas, and yet there are sequences where Kate Hudson is pointlessly sexualized, not being allowed to develop beyond the “hooker with a heart” stereotype.
It’s a film that wants to be digested as an innocent, sweet fruit, without us realizing it’s being given by an endenic serpent. The clash (reference intended) between unfunny antics and misguided representations is wielded about as eloquently as one of George W. Bush’s speeches. There is a joke where a sold ier makes a passing comment about how “women” (notice the universal) steal men’s money, but the actual joke is Rock The Kasbah’s hypocrisy and how it will steal yours.