Rock the Kasbah

Posted by Joel Copling on October 22, 2015

The ongoing, seemingly neverending conflict in Afghanistan is treated as a punch line in Mitch Glazer's screenplay for "Rock the Kasbah," and if you don't believe me, just take a scene in which our protagonist (a term I use very loosely) and his act are passengers in an armed vehicle traveling from the U.S. Embassy to Kabul. An explosion happens only a few kilometers away, but at least, says one of their entourage, only a couple of goats were killed. It's an act of downplaying the gravity of what's happening over there that's as condescending as nearly everything else here. That doesn't even touch on the barely veiled racism of how these characters regard Middle Eastern citizens as either an obvious threat or an equally obvious caricature.

Of course, said protagonist is also a caricature, but that's because Richie Lanz (Bill Murray) knows he's an exaggeration of the modern manager of musical artists. He likes to flaunt that he discovered and created the moniker for Madonna and booked tours for the Rich Money and such other stories that, not for nothing, end up being a load. And it's entirely fine, because the opening scene shows Richie in his element of signing on a singer as a manager with no real occupational prospects. He insults her broken, unmelodious voice but at the same time compares it to a random assortment of pop stars, so at least she's in some sort of well-known company.

His act is Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel), who has a flawless voice that Richie exploits for the purpose of covers of popular songs. During a show one night at a bar that slowly empties, he's approached to send Ronnie on a tour through the many military bases in Afghanistan. The flight is a hellish one for Ronnie because of the turbans on the heads of the fellow passengers (hey, look, casual racism), and the beginning of the trip isn't much better, as Ronnie's cushy life is forgotten in an area of great turmoil. She exits the proceedings without ceremony, but luckily Richie discovers a new talent in the form of Salima (Leem Lubany), a Pashtun girl whose prospects are grim in a region that will kill her for the mere act of singing in public and one torn between two tribes caught up in a turf war anyway.

All of this is approached without an ounce of gravity--with humor, even--insultingly presenting the inhabitants of tumultuous Afghanistan as mostly silent, grimacing enemies that only want death in order to have destruction. The exception is Salima, a progressive voice in a culture that suppresses such voices, but even she's reduced to a talented singer with the voice of an angel (or, more accurately, very impressive autotuning performed upon an overly recorded voice). Richie enters her in a televised singing competition that spirals everything into the turf war that flames higher than ever. The very implications of the narrative within "Rock the Kasbah" are irresponsible.

Film Information

Bill Murray (Richie Lanz), Bruce Willis (Bombay Brian), Kate Hudson (Merci), Zooey Deschanel (Ronnie), Leem Lubany (Salima), Arian Moayed (Riza), Scott Caan (Jake), Danny McBride (Nick), Fahim Fazli (Tariq).

Directed by Barry Levinson and written by Mitch Glazer.

Rated R (language including sexual references, drug use, brief violence).

100 minutes.

Released on October 23, 2015.