Rock the Kasbah Owes Bill Murray an Apology

There used to be no such thing as a bad Bill Murray film. Until now.
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There used to be no such thing as a bad Bill Murray film. Until now.
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You know how it is when you haven't been home for the holidays in a while, and this time you're coming back with your girlfriend and you're pretty jazzed for her to meet your family, especially your favorite uncle whose bachelor life you've always hero worshipped? But then it turns out that all those years of adulation were masking the fact that your uncle is actually just a sad old guy who goes to Afghanistan to have sex with women wearing Marilyn Monroe wigs and act out misguided imperialist fantasies? Rock the Kasbah is kind of like that, in that it's exactly like that. The pathetic attempt at fish out of water comedy falls completely flat here in an obvious testament to terrible writing and directing — and it all happens in spite of Bill Murray trying valiantly to hold this dusty mess together.

In the grand tradition of Hollywood cinema showcasing hapless unlikeables continually failing upward, Rock the Kasbah finds Murray portraying Richie Lanz, a boorish, crass music manager from the Valley subsisting on scamming music hopefuls with tall tales of fabricated success. For reasons no clearer than “a drunk suggested I do it,” Richie takes his only client, Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel), on a USO tour in Kabul. Ronnie takes one look at the country, steals Richie’s passport and money and books it back to the States.

For the next hour, Rock the Kasbah blissfully opts not to concern itself with a plot of any kind, instead taking Richie’s ugly American shtick through the streets of Kabul as he gets caught up with Scott Caan and Danny McBride on a nightlong, pot-fueled drug binge that also involves armed guards, shootouts, and a litany of terrible attempts at humor. Pineapple Express this ain’t.

The movie abandons the McBride/Caan storyline (blessedly relieving McBride of being stuck in the one role even he couldn’t make funny), and haphazardly jumps to an encounter with a prostitute with a heart of gold, Kate Hudson. Despite screenwriter Mitch Glazer’s best efforts to shoehorn in a Penny Lane-esque role to redeem the previous 45 minutes of dumpster fire, a normally radiant Hudson falls short given the material she has to work with. While I can’t say for sure, I’d put good money on the fact that Cameron Crowe would never have her fuck Bill Murray in a Marilyn Monroe wig, before dispensing vague platitudes of fluff.

Somewhere along the way, Bruce Willis shows up, ostensibly due to the fact that no one told him Friends was the pinnacle of comedy cameos for dramatic actors, and that he didn’t really need to take this on. It’s usually nice to see him; I wish I could say the same for here.

It takes a full goddamn hour for the movie to get to its main storyline: Richie overhearing a Pashtun teen singing in a cave because her father would lock her away if he knew her dreams of being a singer. Thank god our American savior, despite his perpetual inefficacy in his own country and his personal life, was there to overhear her and rescue her from her terrible surroundings.

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As expected, the movie continues on in this vein: Richie suddenly being sold to us as some kind of redeemable hero, despite an hour and a half’s worth of mounting evidence to the contrary. Whether he succeeds or not seems wholly irrelevant, given the fact that plot, casting, pacing, and story were wholly irrelevant from the onset.

The worst part of this movie isn’t its tone-deaf commentary (if one can even call it that) on being an American ex-pat in a land filled with contradictions, or its lack of laughs – it’s that Glazer and director Barry Levinson so clearly assumed that having Bill Murray in a movie would be enough. The actor has built up an absurd amount of goodwill far greater than the heaps he already had specifically by being choosy and hard to get. If 2014’s wonderful St. Vincent (which starred Murray alongside Melissa McCarthy) is any example, Murray has made it abundantly clear that if anyone can imbue gravitas into an unlikable character, it’s him. To strip that so wholly from him in one meandering film — despite him acting his ass off to hold the disparate parts of this film together — is a failure of directing and writing, not acting. 

Photos by Open Road Films