Rock The Kasbah *1/2

“Rock The Kasbah” is a star-studded missed opportunity. So much could have gone right, yet so much goes wrong.

Is it worth $10? No

Bill Murray plays never-was music manager Richie Lanz, who claims he discovered Madonna but hasn’t been attached to a star in years. Desperate, he books his receptionist/singer (an underused Zooey Deschanel) on a USO Tour of Afghanistan. Chaos surrounds them after landing in Kabul, and soon enough a mercenary (Bruce Willis) has helped her steal Richie’s passport and money to get the first flight home.

Alone in Kabul, Richie enlists the help of munitions dealers Jake (Scott Caan) and Nick (Danny McBride), which gets him into more trouble. Richie also meets a prostitute (Kate Hudson) who takes advantage of him in more ways than one.

All of the above takes about an hour. It’s a boring hour. There’s a laugh here and there, but Richie isn’t really a guy you root for because he shows few redeeming qualities (a scene with his pre-teen daughter before he leaves for Afghanistan feels thrown in and barely registers). Don’t get me wrong: we always like to see Murray the actor on screen, but when his character starts the movie by bilking a young, untalented singer out of $1,200 it’s hard to embrace Richie.

The story, written by Mitch Glazer and directed by Barry Levinson, gets interesting about halfway through when Richie overhears a teenage Muslim woman named Salima (Leem Lubany) as she sings. To him it’s the voice of an angel, so he wheels and deals and gets her on “Afghan Star,” Afghanistan’s version of “American Idol.” This doesn’t go over well with her traditional father, and it’s quickly noted that if Salima dances in her hijab (traditional female Muslim attire) she’ll be killed. She has success, but the murky social and political waters make it a tough course to navigate.

How Levinson, who once made great movies like “Rain Man” (for which he won an Oscar), completely misses the larger point here is mind-boggling. In the United States girls are told since they’re babies that they can be anything they want to be when they grow up. In Afghanistan under Islamic law, it’s the exact opposite. Thus Salima is publicly shamed, but privately people are voting for her in droves, meaning there’s something about the Afghani community that suggests it is okay with women singing on television. Frustratingly, this is never explained. One or two sentences on who’s voting for Salima and why would’ve gone a long way.

“Rock The Kasbah” also makes you wonder who is going to be interested in seeing it. Will American audiences invest in a scumbag shyster played by Murray, and a Muslim teenager who faces oppression that American women have never felt? Okay the soundtrack has notable pop music, but so does iTunes. The disparate storylines go in tangential directions that Levinson hardly bothers to connect by film’s end.

So many reasons not to see “Rock The Kasbah,” and not one compelling reason to see it.  

Did you know?
Setara Hussainzada, who was one of two female finalists on the real “Afghan Star” in 2007, inspired the premise. Hussainzada didn’t win the competition, but was publicly shamed and threatened.

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