Rock the Kasbah

Movie Information

The Story: A meandering series of events that ultimately becomes the tale of a low-rent talent agent getting a young Afghan girl on the show "Afghan Star." The Lowdown: The first half of this Bill Murray vehicle is just not good, but it gives way in its second half to a movie that's very worth seeing to a degree that at least comes close to cancelling out the wonky first half.
Genre: Comedy-Drama with Music
Director: Barry Levinson
Starring: Bill Murray, Kate Hudson, Leem Lubany, Fahim Fazli, Arian Moayed, Bruce Willis
Rated: R



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.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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20 thoughts on “Rock the Kasbah

  1. T.rex

    No doubt I will see this, Bill Murr— thats enough they got me.

    I had no idea this was a Barry Levinson picture until this review. There was a time his name went well anove the title. Even though Wag the Dog is great satire, Tin Men will always be my favorite if his.

    • Me

      I didn’t know either, I can’t think of any other director that has had as long a career putting out mediocrity as Levinson.

      • T.rex

        Don’t exaggerate. There are far worse, Bay, Ratner, those idiots that make the “_______ Movie” movies. Levinson made some great ones. Tin Men, Rain Man, Wag the Dog, and, as Ken knows, Toys.

        • Ken Hanke

          Levinson is mediocre. Every film you named is either workmanlike, or outright awful. I’d rather sit through Ratner’s Red Dragon than any of them.

          • Ken Hanke

            Wag the Dog has a good script. The direction isn’t anything much.

  2. Edwin Arnaudin

    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.

    Buy a ticket for it and Crimson Peak, see the latter, then walk in to the former at the 50-minute mark.

  3. T.rex

    The movie is fun and yes I am willing to admit my fandome of Bill Murray is the reason. That was stated above, anyway. I don’t see what was so bad about the first half but it reminded me of another Levinson movie I liked, JIMMY HOLLYWOOD. Im sure most die hard cinefiles forgot about that one but no matter. I dont know why but during the viewing I kept thinking this feels like an HBO movie but I am glad it got a cinema release. If you miss this, its not a bad thing.

    • Ken Hanke

      I’d generally prefer to just forget about Levinson altogether. As to what’s so bad about the first half…well, it’s not funny.

  4. Jason

    lame lame lame…. Horrible! as horrible as this review… but even worse… blah gross!

      • Jason

        Some people (me included) appreciate (your) the intellectual review; some people appreciate the the raw (no frills) review…

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