No one stumbles into a Bill Murray movie expecting a socially and politically charged flick. But his new war comedy, “Rock the Kasbah,” delivers some pointed critiques on Americans’ obsession with celebrity culture, and ultimately, themselves. At the same time, it fumbles a bit by prioritizing the goofy antics of its white cast over what turns out to be a smart depiction of non-Western life.
Murray plays washed-up music manager Richie Lanz, a bumbling jerk who fails to pay child support and wants to relive his glory days. Behind his tinted aviator Ray-Bans, Richie isn’t the suave old dude we usually get in Murray. He’s just a bombastic playboy donning a bandana in a war-torn country, whose rock formations remind him of Arizona.
Richie’s misguided sense of self is introduced to us early, as he perches outside the bedroom window of his young daughter, who he’s presumably not permitted to see. In a last-ditch effort to make money, he shares his plans to travel to a Kasbah in Afghanistan with his client/receptionist Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel), so she can sing for soldiers.
“The Kasbah’s in North Africa, Dad,” his daughter scolds him gently.
Ronnie begrudgingly tags along, Richie assuring her that she’ll be a star, just like his other former clients, including Stevie Nicks. In one of the film’s societal critiques, Ronnie is visibly horrified by her fellow passengers: men in turbans.
The sweet little lies that Richie tells throughout the screwball comedy only occasionally work in his favor. He soon finds himself a lone wolf in Kabul after Ronnie swipes his wallet, passport and plane ticket to skip town for Dubai.
Thankfully, Richie still has enough currency — a Keith Haring watch — to pay a take-charge hooker, Merci (Kate Hudson), whose goldilocks and embellished eyebrows feel a bit out of place in Afghanistan. Merci later shares her own big dreams and daddy problems, in a clichéd role far from rivaling “Pretty Woman.” (Fun fact: While they don’t ever share the screen, it’s the first movie Deschanel and Hudson have filmed together since “Almost Famous.”)
High and dry, Richie has two weeks of chicanery before receiving his new passport. He romps around the Middle East with pals like gun-toting mercenary Bombay Brian (Bruce Willis), who’s not willfully helping the schlepping traveler until he gets a share of cash. Heh, Americans, always out for their piece of the pie.
The plot, while amusing, is a series of wacky tangential moments that culminate with the film’s most interesting story line — buried in the last half-hour.
Richie discovers Salima, a Pashtun teenager (Leem Lubany) singing Cat Stevens songs in a covert cave. Richie wants to make her a star despite Afghan women’s status — and the danger it poses — in a patriarchal country.
Salima goes on to become the first-ever female contestant, based on a true story about Setara Hussainzada (who gets a dedication nod in the final credits), on “Afghan Star,” a show akin to “American Idol.” Of course, she needs Richie’s assistance, and he surges from down-and-out nomad to hero — in his mind, at least.
The movie’s focus on a white cast gallivanting around a nonwhite locale is reminiscent of the recent “Aloha.” Save for the strong final act, “Kasbah” could have showcased a bit less American hijinks throughout.
Sometimes, it actually gets real behind-the-scenes on the reality show. One of the Afghan producers and Richie verbally spar momentarily over the risks the crew could face for showcasing a female talent.
“You people [Americans] have been talking and talking at us for far too long,” asserts the producer.
It’s an interesting time for this comedy, as mainstream news splits our attention between both the growing threat of ISIS and the ongoing threat of the Taliban in a post-9/11 world. Simultaneously, news is swamped by outlandish reality stars.
Really, all “Rock the Kasbah” was missing was a cameo by Donald Trump.
Natalie Daher • 612-673-1775
Rock the Kasbah
★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: R for language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence.