Let me tell you about a culture where women are treated as inferiors. It’s a place where they’re concealed from public view; where they are regarded as either saints or whores; where they are denied even the most basic freedoms working men enjoy. That place is Hollywood, and Barry Levinson’s Rock the Kasbah is an inadvertent document of it.
I’m sure that’s not what it was intended to be. It was supposed to tell the story of failed rock band manager Richie Lanz—played by Bill Murray with the actor’s patented deadpan—and how he found redemption in war-torn Afghanistan. And it attempts to tell the parallel story of Salima Khan (Leem Lubany), a girl who defies her conservative Muslim upbringing to perform on Afghan Star, the Afghan version of American Idol. (Her character is very loosely based on Setara Hussainzada, who did indeed sing on Afghan Star and is now marked for death because of it.) “Allah gave me this voice,” Salima tells Lanz, who employs his natural gift for dealmaking to get her onto the show.
Lubany plays Salima as a guileless, virtuous innocent—at least when she gets the chance. Her character has two short dialogue scenes, sings two Cat Stevens songs and spends the rest of the film being passed around like a hot rock. And she’s the most fully developed woman character in the film; all the others are pressed into cookie-cutter stereotypes. Zooey Deschanel plays a druggy rock singer with smeared mascara and no agency; Kate Hudson plays an actual whore with a heart of gold. There’s a precocious daughter, a shrew ex-wife and a bunch of extras clad in burqas. That’s how director Levinson and writer Mitch Glazer regard the women who should be driving this story of empowerment.
The men are just as poorly drawn, though they get a lot more to do. Murray puts some real work into Rock the Kasbah, but his character never manages to earn our empathy; instead, we compare his performance to his other roles. (It’s about half Lost In Translation and half Scrooged—sad, broken Murray paired with irredeemable scumbag Murray.) Bruce Willis is made to play another squinty tough guy, though at least he looks like he’s having some fun doing it. And Danny McBride and Scott Caan play a pair of arms-dealing broheims who could have wandered in from a Seth Rogen buddy comedy. The only decent guy out of the whole bunch is Riza (Arian Moayed), a disco-loving cab driver that becomes Lanz’s translator and sidekick for reasons the film never explains.
The film does get a couple of things right. Levinson, who made an unorthodox kind of war film in 1987’s Good Morning Vietnam, gives us the requisite gunfights and explosions one would expect of a war zone, but they’re filmed as a sheltered civilian might experience them: Bombings are viewed from a distance, and a climatic gun battle is barely seen, only heard. And Levinson knows when to let Murray improvise; his best scenes are those when you can tell he’s gone off-script, stepping outside of the story to poke fun at it. Put another way: As a director, you could do worse than to tie Murray to a bed, put him in lipstick and a wig, and just let him go nuts.
Unlike Salima Khan, Rock the Kasbah risks little. Never for one minute do you think that its characters are anything but Hollywood stars, filling roles they’ve filled too many times before. The only character whose fate is uncertain when the film ends is the young singer who put this story into motion in the first place. And you worry about her, the actress who plays her and the culture that’s failing them both.
Rock the Kasbah (R): ★★✩✩✩