Film Review: Rock the Kasbah

Rock the Kasbah Poster

Rock the Kasbah Plot Summary:

A down-on-his-luck music manager (Billy Murray) discovers a teenage girl with an extraordinary voice while on a music tour in Afghanistan and takes her to Kabul to compete on the popular television show, Afghan Star. 

I usually like to make somewhat lengthy, expository intros where I dance around how I feel about something when I write a review, but there is simply no dancing around this one: Rock the Kasbah is a terrible movie. In fact, it may be the worst movie I have ever had the displeasure to see in a theater. And I’m not talking about something outrageously awful to the point of comedy, or an ambitious failure, or any kind of bad movie where there is the glimmer of something more within the trainwreck. It is a plodding, meandering mess, an exercise in joyless mediocrity. If you’re curious to hear why it’s so bad, then by all means, read on. But if you only wanted to know if this movie is worth seeing, then you can leave now, comfortable in the knowledge that the answer is a resounding “No.”

Bill Murray & Kate Hudson in Rock the Kasbah,
Photo credit:  Kerry Brown / Distributor:  Open Road Films

Rock the Kasbah is the story of American music manager Richie Lanz (Bill Murray) who ends up stuck in Afghanistan, where he helps a young girl named Salima Khan (Leem Lubany) achieve her dream of appearing on Afghan Star, an American Idol-type show. At least, that’s what the plot synopsis claims. In truth, it took fifty minutes in real time (and seven eternities in mental time) for that aspect of the plot to actually begin. That is literally half the movie before the supposed main plot starts! And it’s not like those first fifty minutes were filled with valuable material. They chart, in excruciating detail, how Lanz goes from booking his one remaining talent, Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel), for the USO tour in Afghanistan, to being abandoned by her after she steals all his money and his passport, to agreeing to do a job for two “whacky” arms dealers (Danny McBride and Scott Caan), to finally meeting Salima in a small village.

If that brief synopsis sounded like it could have been interesting, I assure you it is not. Besides being a comedy where every joke is either so poorly written or blandly delivered that it is utterly devoid of laughs, the plot of the first half is incredibly unfocused. Lanz wanders from scene to scene with no real purpose or intention. It seems like a simple progression when summed up, but in truth there are a plethora of extra scenes. Between Lanz being abandoned by Ronnie and agreeing to do a job for arms dealers, we are treated to scene upon scene of him driving around Kabul, going to a strange club, hiring an American prostitute (Kate Hudson) who is in the middle of Afghanistan for some reason, meeting a disco-loving taxi driver (Arian Moayed), and even more beyond that. It is an endless parade of pointless scenes that accomplish nothing beyond brief character introductions and padding the already-interminable runtime.

Bill Murray & Bruce Willis in Rock the Kasbah
Photo credit:  Kerry Brown / Distributor:  Open Road Films

The second half of the movie isn’t any better though. The addition of a clear goal for Richie to work towards does little to alleviate the unfocused nature of the plot. Instead we’re treated to constant vacillation between “Salima has a great voice” and “Women shouldn’t be singing,” a conflict that somehow manages to lack any dramatic weight despite being rooted in an actual life-or-death cultural struggle. There’s also a second plot involving a threat to Salima’s village from a nearby warlord, but it is so underdeveloped and tacked-on that it’s not even worth considering. With all the grand speeches and emotional beats going on, this is clearly the part of the movie where the drama part of its comedy-drama designation is supposed to come forth. But the movie does nothing to earn this, so any moment that might feel sweet or heartfelt instead falls completely flat.

There are millions of reasons why Rock the Kasbah just doesn’t work on this (or any) level, but the biggest one is probably how thoroughly it fails at the basic art of character motivation. Every character is either painfully underdeveloped, bafflingly inconsistent, or both. Take Kate Hudson’s character, Merci. She’s a prostitute saving up for retirement who Richie hires to house Salima in Kabul. Later on in the movie she and Richie seemingly fall in love, but why? They don’t really spend any quality time together before it happens. He does nothing that would win her over, nor does he really try to. It just happens because the script says it happens. Same with Salima’s father. He’s initially vehemently against her singing, we are treated to one or two scenes where he looks conflicted about it, and then in the end he allows it. This is a fine character arc in and of itself, but the problem is we don’t see any of it. He just slowly changes his mind over the course of the movie, not due to new information or talking with his daughter or Richie or anyone about it, or anything else that would make it make sense. It happens because the script says it happens, no matter how little the movie earns his change of heart.

Photo credit:  Kerry Brown / Distributor:  Open Road Films
Photo credit:  Kerry Brown / Distributor:  Open Road Films

The most damning character arc of all, however, is Richie’s. He is the main character of this movie, its core, and his character is every bit as baffling as every other one. At the beginning we are told he’s a washed-up manager who can’t get any clients. He spends fifty minutes of the movie as this same sad person, without any growth or change whatsoever. Then he hears Salima’s voice and he becomes a true believer, an undying advocate for her success. The movie hems and haws about his commitment, toying with scenes where he feels like giving up fighting against the cultural pushback, but it’s a false conflict at best. The script wants him to fight for her so he does, despite a complete lack of any growth or realization that would make him feel this way. Richie becoming a better person should be the central pillar of this movie’s emotional arc, but it just isn’t there. There is never any indication of why he feels like Salima is such an unbelievable talent that deserves to be heard, and so all he does to fight for that feels totally hollow.

Are there good things about Rock the Kasbah? Yes, of course. The acting is actually fairly competent, despite the bad writing behind it. Bill Murray may be phoning it in, but it’s hard to blame him when even a great performance wouldn’t salvage things, while Zooey Deschanel actually gives the closest thing to a coherent, entertaining performance in the whole movie (too bad she disappears so soon). There’s some genuinely good camerawork in there too, complete with a couple beautiful shots of the desert landscape. But these scattered bits of quality are far too little to save this disaster of a film. The script is so poorly conceived and so terribly realized that there was nothing anyone could have done after the fact. I could go on and on, but let me just end things here: Rock the Kasbah is a bad, bad movie. It isn’t worth your money and it isn’t worth your time. Just let it fade away into irrelevance so I never have to think about it again.

Rating: 2 out of 10

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