And that’s not OK
by MATTHEW GAULT
Afghan Star is a popular American Idol-style singing competition show in Afghanistan. Women have defied cultural taboos to sing on the show. In 2008 Lima Sahar, a Pashtun woman, even got death threats after competing. The women of Afghan Star could make for a great film.
Rock the Kasbah, despite telling a version of their story, is not a great film.
I imagine veteran producer-screenwriter Mitch Glazer learned of the brave women of Afghanistan, sat down to write a script and wasn’t quite satisfied with the results.
“This is a great story,” I imagine he said to himself. “But it’s got a lot of Afghans in it. Will Americans watch a picture with so many Afghans? You know who’d be great in an Afghanistan picture? Bruce Willis. I should write a part for him. And the story needs some comedy, I could write a part for Bill Murray. He could be a manager or something. Hell, what if the manager were the star of the whole picture?”
Richie Lanz watches his musician Ronnie — played by Zooey Deschanel — ramble through Meredith Brooks’ Bitch. She’s singing in a dive bar in Van Nuys, California and Lanz is a little drunk. Although not as drunk as the only other patron in the bar listening to Ronnie’s belting.
The drunk thinks Ronnie rocks so hard that Lanz should take her to Afghanistan. He books the USO tours, and he wants Ronnie to open for Demi Lovato … in Kandahar.
“Kandahar rocks in May,” he slurs. Lanz wants to know if it’s a paying gig.
“We’re at war, dude,” the boozy booker says. “The faucet is open.”
So begins the painfully long journey of Lanz — played by Bill Murray — as he bumblefucks his way through Afghanistan. Lanz runs afoul of warlords, dodges bullets and sleeps with a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold named Merci. Because of course.
Mid-shenanigans, Lanz overhears a Pashtun woman named Salima singing a Cat Stevens song in a cave and decides it’s his destiny to help her win Afghan Star. But does Lanz really want to help Salima … or is he just out for himself?
Rock the Kasbah should be about Salima. She’s got the voice of an angel, but her family and culture forbid women to sing, let alone sing on national T.V. Yet she believes her voice is a gift from Allah.
To complicate matters, her father is battling for the leadership of his tribe. A local warlord wants to grow opium on his land but daddy refuses. Someone else in the tribe, possibly his son or his adviser — it’s never really clear — wants to grow the opium and plots to oust Salima’s father.
These two stories — young Afghan woman with a forbidden dream and Pashtun tribal politics — should be the center of this movie. Instead, they feel like subplots in yet another flick about a sardonic scumbag played by Bill Murray.
The film opens with Salima watching Afghan Star and ends with her on stage singing Cat Steven’s Peace Train. There’s a great story here. But instead of following Salima from the beginning of her journey to its end, we spend the entire first hour of the movie watching Murray lazily scumbag his way through Kabul.
Murray freaks out after IED attack. Murray feeds quaaludes to Deschanel after some goats explode. Murray bares what’s left of his heart and soul to Kate Hudson’s Merci.
And look, I love Murray. Everyone loves Murray. But Lanz shouldn’t be the focus of this story.
Director Barry Levinson peppered Rock the Kasbah with beautiful, dark moments. Danny McBride and Scott Caan give great performances as ammunition dealers. McBride’s little speech about government contracts is pitch-perfect.
But it doesn’t jibe in a film where, an hour later, Murray’s Lanz gives a grand speech about his destiny and admits to his faults. As if he deserved to be the center of attention.
At one point, Lanz attempts to win over the host of Afghan Star with an inspirational speech about courage. “You don’t talk to me about courage,” the producer says and Lanz shuts up. “You people, you talk and talk and talk. There are more death threats on this show than singers.”
Later, Lanz tries to talk his way out of another bad situation and a warlord shoots him in the shoulder. Watching Lanz take a bullet was my favorite moment in the whole movie. I wanted the bad guys to shoot Lanz.
Rock the Kasbah has an odd maudlin cynicism that doesn’t work. Levinson wants to tell an inspirational story while sneering at the same time — and he just can’t pull it off. Instead, he delivers a film much like Murray’s Lanz — tired, lazy and full of shit.