Way back in another time (1987 to be exact), Barry Levinson directed Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam, in which a famous comedian does his trademark shtick in the midst of a far-off conflagration - bullets flying, convoys exploding all around. It was a star vehicle built just right for Williams. Everything worked: the manic monologues, the soulful 1960s soundtrack, the stick-it-to-the-man mentality, and a character humanized by the war, by the wartorn.
Cut to 2015, and Levinson's directing credit is affixed to Rock the Kasbah, in which a famous comic actor does his trademark shtick in the midst of a far-off conflagration - bullets flying, convoys exploding all around. Bill Murray, as low-rent L.A. talent manager Richie Lanz, moves deadpan and rumpled, rolling his eyes with that look of world-weary wastedness, and just about nothing works.
Inspired, very loosely, by the story of Setara Hussainzada, the first woman to compete on Afghan Star, an American Idol-like talent show, Rock the Kasbah is a gonzo comedy gone wrongzo. Plot: Murray's Richie is squiring his client and surly personal assistant Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) on a hastily arranged USO tour of Afghanistan. The pair check into a not exactly top-tier Kabul hostelry. Then Ronnie goes missing with Richie's passport, and the latter falls in with Merci (Kate Hudson), a prostitute who services the armed services from her double-wide trailer. The first encounter between Richie and Merci - she's in a swimming pool, paddling seductively to the edge where he stands - is icky in every way. If you believe Hollywood doesn't have a problem with older dudes and younger actresses, then this meet-cute won't bother you at all. Nor will the way Bruce Willis, as a smirky mercenary named Bombay Brian, paws at Deschanel in a bar.
Soon, but not soon enough, Richie finds himself in the provinces, in the dark, where he hears a plaintive voice singing Cat Stevens' "Trouble" - Yusuf Islam's "Trouble," that is - from deep within a cave. It's "the chick in a red burka," Salima (Leem Lubany), and Richie's ears go erect. He knows talent when he hears it. Problem: Women should neither be seen nor heard in this Taliban-dominated culture. Salima's father is ready to kill somebody, anybody, but especially Richie when he persuades the producer of Afghan Star to take Salima on as one of the show's contestants.
Death threats ensue.
So, too, do some deadly unfunny jokes, and the kind of cultural stereotyping better left for the writers of South Park. I love Bill Murray - Rushmore, Lost in Translation, his work with Jim Jarmusch, last year's St. Vincent, the timeless time-loop classic Groundhog Day - but some projects are just too misguided for the star to mug and shrug his way out of. Consider Rock the Kasbah at the top, or the bottom, of that list.
Rock the Kasbah ** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Barry Levinson. With
Bill Murray, Zooey Deschanel, Kate Hudson, Bruce Willis, and Leem Lubany. Distributed by Open Road.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, sex, drugs, violence, adult themes).
Playing at: Area theaters.EndText