In Rock the Kasbah’s universe, all we need to do to end the troubles in the Middle East is send Bill Murray out there to tell them all what’s what.
Murray essentially plays himself playing a struggling talent manager, whose paltry existence on the periphery of the industry is propped up by hustling X-Factor wannabes. He dines out on his tales of having discovered Madonna, but is on the brink of losing his one act, Ronnie, who he forces to sing Shania Twain covers. A chance meeting leads to the offer of a foreign tour; the problem is, it’s in Afghanistan. He bullies Ronnie into accepting the gig and she spends the remainder of the film in the breathy depths of a panic attack.
The first half is a fish out of water piece in which Murray’s Richie Lanz meets a series of nihilistic American ex-pats, including gun runners, prostitutes and mercenaries. There are occasional flashes of the sharp foreign-policy satire this could have been if director Barry Levinson had stuck at it. But it mostly plods along on the strength of Murray’s sad, watery eyes, with the actor apparently content to call this one in.
Lanz ends up in the middle of the desert – it’s complicated, OK? – where he finds an Afghan girl singing in a cave. She wants to be famous. And you know what? Richie Lanz is gonna make her famous! But the Afghan people are all either silly or bad, and they don’t like his idea and it descends into a series of toe-curling, culturally insensitive confrontations in which the white man – even one as trashed and morally bankrupt as Lanz – opens the eyes of a thankful nation. Formerly angry brown people see the error of their ways. Thank goodness for Americans in Afghanistan!
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this ill-conceived, poorly-executed film is that it delivers its offensive payload with an entirely straight face.
First published in City A.M.