Published Oct 23, 2015It's hard to imagine a film with an all-star cast like that of Barry Levinson's latest film Rock the Kasbah — including Zooey Deschanel, Danny McBride, Bruce Willis, Scott Caan, Kate Hudson and Bill Murray — being a tough watch, but there's something frustrating about this uneven comedy.
Murray plays Richie Lanz, a former rock'n'roll tour manger toiling his day away in Van Nuys who strikes up a deal with a USO concert booker to bring his best (and seemingly only) talent (Deschanel) over to Afghanistan to play shows for the American troops. But once in the military war zone, his singer gets cold feet and retreats to Dubai with both their cash and passports, leaving him penniless and in a precarious situation on the streets of Kabul. From there, we're reintroduced to two American ammunition salesmen (McBride and Caan, who strangely steal the show here, given their limited screen time) who hatch a plan to help him earn back his money and make it home.
It's around this time that one movie ends — the madcap one that finds Murray at the height of his game — and another begins: While staying with a small community he's been forced to sell bullets to, Murray stumbles upon Salima (Leem Lubany), a local Pashtun girl with a powerful and distinctive singing voice. Feeling fate has brought them together, he makes it his goal to make her the next big singing sensation by becoming the first-ever female performer on Afghan Star, a vocal competition known throughout the region.
Somewhere along the way, Murray transitions from the selfish but charming loser we've seen him play time and time again into a selfless agent with a heart of gold, and it feels clumsy and uncomfortable. That's because Rock the Kasbah isn't just one movie, but a picture that's made up of multiple storylines that are equally worth exploring. The problem is Levinson and screenwriter Mitch Glazer (Scrooged) seem to have chosen the wrong one to focus on. Kate Hudson's character's story, for example, about a blonde Southern belle and prostitute named Merci stationed in a double-wide on the outskirts of Kabul trying to make enough money to start a real estate business in Hawaii, is such a goldmine, it's surprising someone else didn't make it into a movie first; it deserves a fuller, richer telling.
Judging by some of the film's stranger edits, there's more material hidden underneath the surface. Here's hoping a future director's cut cleans out the cobwebs and helps create a more cohesive picture.