Barry Levinson’s Rock the Kasbah is one of the oddest movies I’ve seen in a while. It’s virtually two different movies — and not in a good way. It’s one-half a good movie, and one-half this perplexing … thing. The first half (give or take) is something of a meandering mess that I can only presume is meant to be funny. Mostly, it’s not. It’s just a disjointed mess that serves no useful function other than to (finally) get to the actual story. The actual story is good — maybe even very good — but getting to it may try the patience of even the stoutest Bill Murray fan. Since I was duty-bound to watch the whole movie, I made it to the part of the movie that I liked — a lot — but I have to wonder how many people will bail before getting to that part. All in all, I’d say bailing would be a mistake.
Despite briefly touching on where the film will eventually go at the very start, the action quickly moves to down-on-his-luck talent agent Richie Lanz (Bill Murray), who is eking out a bare existence in a motel in Van Nuys by bilking talentless — and gullible — hopefuls into paying him to represent them. This should work, and it almost does in the bit where he tells a potential client (Sarah Baker) that she’s so bereft of talent that she has a good shot at fame. But it quickly sputters and flames out by detailing Richie’s relationship with his only (sort of) working client (Zooey Deschanel in a thankless, unpleasant and blessedly brief performance). Anyway, it’s all a setup for Richie signing her for a USO tour in Afghanistan and moving the action there. The big problem with this — and a lot of what happens in Kabul — is that it’s neither funny, nor all that interesting.
All this and more is in the service of getting Richie stranded in Afghanistan, when Deschanel runs off with his money and his passport, and in debt to an irritable mercenary (Bruce Willis). On the plus side, it also lands him in bed — and then in cahoots — with a hooker (Kate Hudson in an unusually agreeable performance) who may not have the proverbial heart of gold, but is not immune to Bill Murray’s Bill Murrayness. And it gains him a sympathetic sidekick-interpreter-taxi driver, Riza (Arian Moayed), who is a lot more fun than Zooey Deschanel. On the downside — but necessary to the plot — we get Scott Caan and Danny McBride as unfunny crooked arms dealers who, at long last, get Richie to the desert, where he closes a deal and hears a girl, Salima (Leem Lubany), singing Cat Stevens’ “Trouble” in the dead of night. And here’s where the movie turns into something worth having.
What follows is essentially a highly — highly — fictionalized variation on the events of the documentary Afghan Star (2009), which dealt with the taboo incursion of women on the popular Afghan version of “American Idol.” It’s a bit of a culture-clash (mostly) comedy and a bit of a self-realization and redemption story, and it’s all pitched to a feel-good vibe — one that works on the charms of Lubany, Murray, Hudson and a good selection of Cat Stevens songs. But it does work. It works so well, in fact, that it all but washes away the shortcomings of the first half of the movie.
I blame that first section on screenwriter Mitch Glazer and his apparent belief that Murray is funny by just showing up. Though I’m no fan of Barry Levinson, I think he does what he can with the early scenes and shines in the later ones. What I end up with is, I suppose, a conflicted recommendation for half of a movie. And if you’re not sure what to make of that, neither am I, but it’s the best I can do. Rated R for language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence.