Even Bill Murray's gonzo routine wears thin in Rock the Kasbah, an apolitical satire misfiring on most cylinders. Not exactly Ishtar but just a blind camel's spit take away.
Murray plays Richie Lanz, introduced in promising fashion as a has-been rock and roll promoter, now scamming off-key wannabes in a Van Nuys motel room office. Richie's only legit client is Ronni Smiler (Zooey Deschanel), singing covers with canned back-up. Richie — and Rock the Kasbah — have something going for them while she's around.
At Ronni's show, Richie meets a booking agent drunk enough to think she's talented, inviting them to join a USO tour of Afghanistan, painting it as a magical place. That's enough to set-up another reason for Murray's glad-handing sarcasm, bending a helpless world to his whims.
But there is finite amusement to Afghans blankly staring at Murray double-talking, or howling Smoke on the Water around a campfire. There is a point along the way when Richie being a culturally naive goofball morphs into ugly Americanism, believing he knows better than centuries-old traditions, solely for selfish purposes.
That would be interesting, if director Barry Levinson and screenwriter Mitch Glazer had the brass to tackle the topic. Levinson showed such gumption before, in the sharp 1997 satire Wag the Dog, also his last theatrical release that holds up. Here, even his occasional absurdities — a posh nightclub in a war zone, a golf course without grass — are toss-aways.
Rock the Kasbah eventually declares itself to be honoring a real-life Afghan role model, ironically by fictionalizing her story to suit Murray's sense of humor. That subplot flowers in the third act, after Ronni's abrupt departure and dead-end comedy detours through arms dealers, warlords and Bruce Willis as a monotone mercenary.
Richie hears an epiphany in the desert, a woman's voice echoing through the mountains. Women aren't allowed to sing in Afghanistan's fundamentalist culture, so Salima (Leem Lubany) sings in a cave, secretly watching Afghan Star, her nation's take on American Idol.
Richie talks her way onto the show, knowing the uproar and violence it will likely cause. But the show and his comeback must go on, an unseemly attitude that Murray and Levinson seldom play loutish as it is. He's a one-man cultural crusade, changing hearts and minds in a nation distrusting us. Too bad Richie Lanz is a figment of short-sighted imagination.
However, Salima, at least her inspiration, is real. Lima Sahar broke the gender barrier on Afghan Star in 2008, apparently without any help from a Westerner. Rock the Kasbah isn't respectful of truth, or consistently funny in the way it lies.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.