Editor’s Note: Rock the Kasbah opened in wide theatrical release October 23, 2015.
If one were to glance quickly at the recent choices in projects by Bill Murray, from Broken Flowers to Hyde Park on Hudson and St. Vincent, one could make a broadly understandable but deeply uninformed assumption that Bill Murray is desperately in search of reaching Oscar glory. Murray’s performance in Lost in Translation famously failed to achieve him anything Oscar-related beyond a nomination, and the easy narrative to craft would be that of the embittered actor on a quest to achieve that which was unjustly denied him. While there may be some truth to these claims (Murray’s visible disappointment when Sean Penn’s name was in the envelope instead of his would be the main source of evidence), clinging solely to this explanation for Murray’s post-Translation trajectory does him a grave disservice.
There are three different movies swimming around in Barry Levinson’s Rock the Kasbah, but none of them ever reach their true potential…
Like many artists, Murray chooses to work with talents that inspire him and provide him with characters and scenarios that interest him. A closer inspection of Murray’s filmography reveals he has worked with a handful of artists more than once – Reitman, Anderson, Jarmusch, Ramis, the Coppola siblings, the Farrelly brothers. His new film, Rock the Kasbah, marks a new addition to that list with Mitch Glazer, who co-wrote Scrooged and would later go on to direct Murray in 2010’s Passion Play. In addition to working on the upcoming Netflix special A Very Murray Christmas, Glazer is currently developing a big-screen adaptation of the Starz show Magic City, which coincidentally will also feature Bill Murray.
While it isn’t beneath Murray to appear in a movie as a favor to his comrades (a head-scratching brief appearance in Dumb and Dumber To, for example), choosing to do a film based purely on how it will fare in awards season is something completely foreign to him. Murray clearly sees something in Glazer, but what exactly that is still remains to be seen.
There are three different movies swimming around in Barry Levinson’s Rock the Kasbah, but none of them ever reach their true potential due to screenwriter Mitch Glazer’s inability to commit to any of his threads or flesh out any of their characters, all of whom enter and leave the story haphazardly without any real consequence or lasting impression. At the center of all this juggled chaos is veteran actor and beloved American icon Bill Murray, whose presence single-handedly promotes the material from the aimlessly banal to the sporadically engaging.
There are some slight chuckles and faint emotional stirrings along the way, but Rock the Kasbah never successfully transforms into either an involving character drama or an inspired comedy.
Murray plays Richie Lanz, a music manager bursting with story after story of his involvement with all sorts of famous musical celebrities. But stories of days gone by are all that Richie seems to have to tell anymore. Richie now unflatteringly conducts his business out of a dilapidated motel room adjacent to an unattended pool, where he gets gullible aspiring singers hoping to become America’s next great sensation to give him their money. He keeps promising his sole client Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) that he will get her a real gig where she can sing her own songs instead of half-assed rock covers, a promise he insists will fulfill itself after they do a show in Afghanistan.
Rock the Kasbah quickly devolves into a zany fish out of water and road trip hybrid. Nerves shattered to breaking point, Ronnie steals Richie’s money and passport and jumps ship. Mitch Glazer spends too much time trying to make us care that Ritchie finds Ronnie, but it never works. Ritchie’s journey takes him into the path of a hooker with a heart of gold (Kate Hudson), a grizzled warrior who just wants to write a book about his life (Bruce Willis), a cabbie who enjoys American music (Arian Moayed), and two arms dealers (Danny McBride and Scott Caan). These characters are zany because the portion of the movie that’s the over-the-top comedy needs them to be, but when Glazer decides that he wants his movie to be more of a serious drama he makes them change to fit that mold. It’s an interesting concept, the sort of which has worked in other places, but the only thing it achieves here is giving McBride even less to do than he did in Aloha.
This is film is very loosely based on a documentary called Afghan Star, which among other things chronicled the story Setara Hoseinzadah, the first female contestant on Afghanistan’s version of American Idol. As of now I have not seen that 2009 documentary, but there has to have been a better way to tell her story than by way of “white man saves himself by saving a minority.” That’s the second and predominant movie present in Glazer’s script. Murray once again keeps our interest invested in what’s going on even if it’s just due to the fact that he’s Bill freakin’ Murray.
There are some slight chuckles and faint emotional stirrings along the way, but Rock the Kasbah never successfully transforms into either an involving character drama or an inspired comedy. No matter what Glazer tries to do with his story, the ghost of the third movie swimming around in his script is constantly hovering over the material. In that movie, the film doesn’t just open with the woman rejecting tradition and going against her family, but it sticks with her. Murray eventually shows up, but as a side character. But this is Hollywood, and that kind of story would never make any money. Ironically, neither will this one.
Unfocused and uninspired, Rock the Kasbah offers a few chuckles but not much else.